Many who loudly advertise themselves as “skeptics” are actually “disbelievers”.
Properly, a skeptic is a nonbeliever, a person who refuses to jump to conclusions based on inconclusive evidence. A disbeliever, on the other hand, is characterized by an a priori belief that a certain idea is wrong and will not be swayed by any amount of empirical evidence to the contrary. Since disbelievers usually fancy themselves skeptics, I will follow Truzzi and call them pseudoskeptics, and their opinions pseudoskepticism.
The more belligerent pseudoskeptics have their own organizations and publications. In Germany, there is an organization called the Gesellschaft zur wissenschaftlichen Untersuchung von Parawissenschaften e.V., or GWUP, ( “society for the scientific evaluation of parasciences”) which publishes a magazine called Der Skeptiker (“the Skeptic”). In the United States, there is the so-called “Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal”, or short, CSICOP. The name suggests a serious, unbiased institute or think tank whose mission is to advance human knowledge by sorting out true anomalous discoveries from erroneous or fraudulent ones. Indeed, that was what some of the original members of CSICOP envisioned when they founded the organization in 1976. But in the very same year, CSICOP faced an internal crisis, a power struggle between the genuine skeptics and the disbelieving pseudoskeptics that was to tilt the balance in favor of the latter.
At issue was the Mars Effect, an extraordinary claim made by French statistician and psychologist Michel Gauquelin. Gauquelin had discovered an apparent statistical correlation between the position of Mars in the sky at the moment of birth of a person with the odds of that person becoming a sports champion, producing a genuine piece of empirical evidence that astrology might not be nonsense after all. This dismayed the pseudoskeptics, who until them had been comfortable dismissing astrology on purely theoretical grounds and were unwilling to even entertain the hypothesis that Gauquelin’s analysis might be correct. In 1976, in an attempt to make this embarrassment go away once and for all, Harvard professor of biostatistics and CSICOP fellow Marvin Zelen proposed a simplified version of the original Gauquelin study which he subsequently performed with the assistance of CSICOP chairman and professor of philosophy Paul Kurtz and George Abell, a UCLA astronomer. In order to get the result they wanted, the trio had to commit a total of six statistical blunders, which are discussed in detail in the article The True Disbelievers: Mars Effect Drives Skeptics to Irrationality by former CSICOP fellow Richard Kammann. Proper analysis showed that the new study actually supported the Gauquelin effect.
But Kurtz and his fellow pseudoskeptics had never been interested in performing proper science. Their minds had been made up long before the study was performed, and they adamantly refused to admit their mistake in public. This lead to the resignation of many fair-minded CSICOP members, among them Richard Kammann and co-founder Marcello Truzzi. Truzzi wrote about his experience in Reflections On The Reception Of Unconventional Claims In Science:
“Originally I was invited to be a co-chairman of CSICOP by Paul Kurtz. I helped to write the bylaws and edited their journal. I found myself attacked by the Committee members and board, who considered me to be too soft on the paranormalists. My position was not to treat protoscientists as adversaries, but to look to the best of them and ask them for their best scientific evidence. I found that the Committee was much more interested in attacking the most publicly visible claimants such as the “National Enquirer”. The major interest of the Committee was not inquiry but to serve as an advocacy body, a public relations group for scientific orthodoxy. The Committee has made many mistakes. My main objection to the Committee, and the reason I chose to leave it, was that it was taking the public position that it represented the scientific community, serving as gatekeepers on maverick claims, whereas I felt they were simply unqualified to act as judge and jury when they were simply lawyers.”
After the true skeptics had been purged from the committee, CSICOP and its magazine, The Skeptical Inquirer, degenerated into little more than a propaganda outlet for the systematic ridicule of anything unconventional. Led by a small, but highly aggressive group of fundamentalist pseudoskeptics such as chairman and humanist philosopher Paul Kurtz, science writer and magician Martin Gardner and magician James Randi, CSICOP sees science not as a dispassionate, objective search for the truth, whatever it might be, but as holy war of the ideology of materialism against “a rising tide of irrationality, superstition and nonsense”. Kurtz and his fellows are fundamentalist materialists. They hold the nonexistence of paranormal phenomena as an article of faith, and they cling to that belief just as fervently and irrationally as a devout catholic believes in the Virgin Mary. They are fighting a no holds barred war against belief in the paranormal, and they see genuine research into such matters as a mortal threat to their belief system. Since genuine scientific study has the danger that the desired outcome is not guaranteed, CSICOP wisely no longer conducts scientific research of its own (such would be a waste of time and money for an entity that already has all the answers), and instead largely relies on the misrepresentation or intentional omission of existing research and the ad-hominem – smear, slander, and ridicule.
Eugene Mallove, editor of Infinite Energy Magazine, relates the following telling episode in Issue 23, 1999 of his magazine:
“On the morning of July 14, 1998, I called Skeptical Inquirer’s editor, Kendrick Frazier, to ask him, among other things, what research or literature search he had done on cold fusion. He rebuffed me, saying that he was too busy to talk, because he was on deadline on an editorial project. We spoke briefly; he was transparently irritated. He said, ‘I know who you are.’ He said that he did not want to talk to me because, ‘We would have diametrically opposed views.’ I said, ‘Oh, what research have you done to come to your conclusions about cold fusion.’ I had thought that the careful investigation of ‘diametrically opposed views’ was part of the work of CSICOP. Perhaps I was mistaken. Frazier said, ‘I’m not an investigator, I’m an editor.’ The conversation ended with Frazier stating that he had nothing further to say.” [The entire article here: CSICOP: “Science Cops” at War with Cold Fusion.]
Even though it is largely run by scientific lay people, and its practices are anathema to true science, CSICOP has enjoyed the support of a number of highly prestigious scientists such as Stephen Jay Gould, the late Carl Sagan, Glenn T. Seaborg, Leon Lederman and Murray Gell-Mann. This support has enabled it to project an image of scientific authority to the opinion shapers in the media and the general public.
For a detailed study of pseudo-skepticism in general, and CSICOP in particular, I refer the reader to George P. Hansen’s article CSICOP and the Skeptics: An Overview (published in the Journal of the American Society for Psychical Research), in which CSICOP’s history, goals, tactics and membership structure are discussed in some detail. In his conclusions, Hansen finds that:
“CSICOP’s message has often been well received, particularly among scientific leaders. The growth of CSICOP, the circulation figures of “SI”, and the academic credentials of its readership prove that there is wide interest in the paranormal among the most highly educated members of our society. Many readers of ‘SI’ undoubtedly assume that CSICOP presents the best available scientific evidence. The readers are rarely told of the existence of refereed scientific journals that cover parapsychology. The effect of CSICOP’s activities is to create a climate of hostility toward the investigation of paranormal claims; indeed, at one CSICOP conference, the announcement of the closing of several parapsychology laboratories was greeted with cheers.”
The remainder of this text is devoted to a detailed discussion of pseudoskeptical arguments and debating tactics.
“If it was true, there is no way that science could have missed it!”
This is a variation of the end of science argument – since science already knows everything, and does not recognize the unconventional phenomenon, it cannot be real. Besides being based on a mere belief – that science has discovered everything there is to know – this argument ignores the nature of human perception. Even scientists tend to see only what they want to see, and that is how phenomena that we find completely obvious today, such as Wegener’s plate tectonics – look how South America fits into Africa! – went unnoticed for a long time, and were violently opposed when they were finally pointed out. As Arthur C. Clarke put it:
“It is really quite amazing by what margins competent but conservative scientists and engineers can miss the mark, when they start with the preconceived idea that what they are investigating is impossible. When this happens, the most well-informed men become blinded by their prejudices and are unable to see what lies directly ahead of them.”
True skeptics appreciate that the principal flaw of human perception – seeing what one wants to see – can afflict conventional as well as unconventional scientists. Their opinions are moderated by the humbling realization that today’s scientific orthodoxy began as yesterday’s scientific heresy; as the the December 2002 editorial of Scientific American puts it:
“All scientific knowledge is provisional. Everything that science ‘knows’, even the most mundane facts and long-established theories, is subject to reexamination as new information comes in.”
Confusing Assumptions with Findings
Pseudoskeptics like to claim that the assumptions underlying modern science are empirical facts that science has proved. For example, the foundational assumption of neuroscience, that the functioning of the brain (and, therefore, the mind) is explainable in terms of classical physics as the interaction of neurons, is said to be a scientific fact that is proved by neuroscience, despite the embarrassing and long-standing failure of this assumption to explain the anomaly of consciousness.
In a recent BBC program on homeopathy Walter Stewart (the same one who was part of the Nature team that visited Benveniste in his laboratory in 1988) is quoted on the subject of homeophatic dilutions:
“Science has through many, many different experiments shown that when a drug works it’s always through the way the molecule interacts with the body and, so the discovery that there’s no molecules means absolutely there’s no effect.”
But science has shown no such thing. That the functioning of biological organisms is reducible to the physical interaction of molecules is not the result of decades of bio-molecular research, it is the assumption underlying this research. The fact that homeopathy confounds that assumption refutes the latter, not the former.
“Debate Closed” Mentality
Since Pseudoskeptics have by their nature made up their minds on any question long before the evidence is in, they are not interested in participating in what could become an involved, drawn-out debate. On the contrary, their concern is with preserving their own understanding of how nature works, so discordant evidence has to be disposed of as quickly as possible. When sound evidence to that end is unavailable, anything that sufficiently resembles it will suffice. Pseudoskeptics like to jump to conclusions quickly – when the conclusion is their own, preconceived one. Once the pseudoskeptical community has agreed on an “explanation” that is thought to debunk claim X, that explanation then becomes enshrined in pseudoskeptical lore and is repeated ad infinitum and ad nauseam in the pseudoskeptical literature. Subsequent rebuttals are ignored, as is new data that support claims X.
Examples are legion:
- Gurwich’s 1932 discovery of mitogenetic radiation is still derided by pseudoskeptics as a classical example of “pathological science” (Irving Langmuir, who coined the term, used it as an example), even though it has been vindicated by three decades of biophoton research.
- Pseudoskeptics continue their ridicule of Cold Fusion as a mistake, even use “cold fusion” as a metaphor to refer to what they deem pathological science in general, ignoring a full decade of successful replication of the effect.
- Parapsychology continues to be attacked by the hard-core pseudoskeptics with criticisms that were addressed and resolved long ago, leading Radin to remark that “…skeptics who continue to repeat the same old assertions that parapsychology is a pseudoscience, or that there are no repeatable experiments, are uninformed not only about the state of parapsychology, but also about the current state of skepticism!”
Overreaching and Armchair Quarterbacking
Faced with contradictory or inconclusive evidence, the skeptic will only say that the claim has not been proved at this time, and give the claimant the benefit of the doubt. The pseudoskeptic will make the (incorrect) counter-claim that the original claim has been disproved by the evidence (and usually follow up with generous amounts of name-calling and other extra-scientific arguments discussed below).
This distinction between simply not accepting a claim and making a counter-claim is important because it shifts the burden of proof. The true skeptic does not have to prove anything, because she is simply unconvinced of the validity of an extraordinary claim. Pseudoskeptics, on the other hand, making the claim that the extraordinary phenomenon only appears to be extraordinary, and has a conventional explanation, have to bear a burden of proof of their own. Do they? The general answer is no. Most of the professional pseudoskeptics engage in mere ‘armchair quarterbacking’, conducting no research of their own. As far as parapsychology is concerned, Radin sums this situation up as follows, “The fact that most skeptics do not conduct counter studies to prove their claims is often ignored.”
For example, in 1983 the well-known skeptic Martin Gardner wrote:
“How can the public know that for fifty years skeptical psychologists have been trying their best to replicate classic psi experiments, and with notable unsuccess [sic]? It is this fact more than any other that has led to parapsychology’s perpetual stagnation. Positive evidence keeps coming in from a tiny group of enthusiasts, while negative evidence keeps coming in from a much larger group of skeptics.”
As Honorton points out:
“Gardner does not attempt to document this assertion, nor could he. It is pure fiction. Look for the skeptic’s experiments and see what you find.” In addition, there is no “larger group of skeptics.” Perhaps ten or fifteen skeptics have accounted for the vast bulk of the published criticisms.”
Assuming False Scientific Authority
Many high-profile pseudoskeptics pass judgement based on scientific expertise they don’t have. James Randi, for example, shares the following tirade in a July 13, 2001 commentary on his web site:
“Just so that you can see how pseudoscience and ignorance have taken over the Internet merchandising business, I suggest that you visit [the “Hydrate for Life” website] and try to follow the totally false and misleading pitch that the vendors make for this product, magically-prepared ‘Penta’ water that will ‘hydrate’ your body miraculously. A grade-school education will equip you to recognize the falsity of this claim, but it’s obvious that the purveyors are cashing in on ignorance and carelessness. Just read this as an example of pure techno-claptrap:
“Normally, the water you drink is in large clusters of H20 [sic] molecules. That’s because its [sic] been affected by air, heat, and modern civilization. PentaTM is water that, through physics, has been reduced to its purest state in nature — smaller clusters of H2O [sic] molecules. These smaller clusters move through your body more quickly than other water, penetrating your cell membranes more easily. This means PentaTM is absorbed into your system faster and more completely. When you drink PentaTM, you’re drinking the essence of water. You get hydrated faster, more efficiently, and more completely than with any other water on earth.
“Folks, water is water. It’s burned hydrogen, no more, no less. The molecules of H2O — not ‘H2O’ as these quacks write — do not ‘cluster’, under any influence of the dreadful ‘air, heat, and modern civilization’ that you’re cautioned to fear. True, water exhibits surface tension, and the molecules do ‘line up’ to an extent, though almost any foreign substance in there disturbs this effect — soap/detergent ‘wets’ it readily. But water molecules in ‘clusters’? No way! The illustrations you see here are totally wrong and fictitious. There’s no such thing as ‘essence of water’, by any stretch of scientific reasoning, or imagination. This is total, unmitigated nonsense, a pack of lies designed to swindle and cheat, to steal money, and to rob the consumer. And ‘through physics’ has nothing to do with it. I await objections to the above statements. There will be none, because the sellers of ‘Penta’ know they’re lying, they do it purposefully, and they know they can get away with it because of the incredible inertia of the Federal agencies that should be protecting us against such deception and thievery. Those agencies just can’t do the job, and they bumble about endlessly while the public continues to pay through the nose. But notice: the Penta people, on their web page, beneath a family picture of the founders, clearly assert that: At first, [the Penta engineers] tested Penta on plants. They discovered that test seeds would germinate in half the time as the control seeds. Bingo! Hallelujah! We have the means for a test! A simple, inexpensive, clearly demonstrative, test! Such a demonstration would clearly establish the claim these folks are making. Ah, but will PentaTM apply for the million-dollar prize? Dear reader, with your experience of Tice, DKL, Quadro, Josephson, Edward, and all the parade of others who have declined to be tested, I think that you expect, as I do, that PentaTM will apply as promptly as Sylvia Browne did. The PentaTM page advises us to ‘Penta-hydrate – be fluid.’ Translation: ‘Believe this — be stupid.'”
Randi could not be more wrong. Water is not simply “water- burned hydrogen, no more no less”. It is a highly anomalous substance, and its fundamental properties are still the subject of basic research. Admittedly, the claims made for “Penta-Water” are scientifically extravagant. But can they be dismissed out of hand? Contrary to what Randi asserts with such rhetoric force and finality, water clusters are discussed in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. The interested reader may want to visit Martin Chaplin’s web site for an overview of scientific work on water clustering. Chaplin is not a stage magician, but a Professor of Applied Science at South Bank University, London and holds a degree in chemistry. He is also an active researcher in the field of water clustering, and concludes that:
“…there is a sufficient and broad evidential base for it’s existence (the existence of the icosahedral water cluster), including the ability to explain all the ‘anomalous’ properties of water.”
The existence of scientific evidence for water clusters does of course not imply that “Penta” and similar products have any merit, but it does caution against outright dismissal of these kinds of product. Randi’s sweeping negative statements betray lack of knowledge on the subject and qualify him as a blundering pseudo-scientist. His petty, adolescent criticism of a simple typographic inaccuracy on the “Hydrate for Life” web site and his use of ridicule (he asserts that “Penta” is “magically-prepared” and works “miraculously” while the manufacturer simply states that the process is “proprietary”) support that impression. And yet, Randi rhetorically assumes an air of scientific authority, even infallibility.
Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer makes the following ignorant argument in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):
“The biggest problem with the cold fusion debacle, for instance, was not that Stanley Pons and Martin Fleischman were wrong. It was that they announced their spectacular discovery at a press conference before other laboratories verified it. Worse, when cold fusion was not replicated, they continued to cling to their claim. Outside verification is crucial to good science.”
The argument against “science by press conference” is a good one, but it would be more credible if Shermer applied it to accepted science too. A prime example is Robert Gallo’s announcement of the discovery of the “probable cause of AIDS” in a press conference in 1984 that preceeded publication of his research in Science and secured a political commitment to his alleged facts before critical scientific discussion could take place.
What makes Shermer’s argument ignorant is his use of cold fusion as an example. Real scientists who have actually studied the evidence for cold fusion have come to very different conclusions. In February 2002, the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center of the United State Navy in San Diego released a 310 page report titled Thermal and Nuclear Aspects of the Pd/D2O System that discusses the overwhelming experimental evidence that the cold fusion effect indeed exists. Dr. Frank E. Gordon, the head of the center’s Navigation and Applied Sciences Department, writes in the foreword:
“We do not know if Cold Fusion will be the answer to future energy needs, but we do know the existence of Cold Fusion phenomenon through repeated observations by scientists throughout the world. It is time that this phenomenon be investigated so that we can reap whatever benefits accrue from additional scientific understanding. It is time for government funding organizations to invest in this research.”
Yet Shermer, a psychologist by trade, feels called upon to pass summary negative judgment on this field of research.
Double Standards of Acceptable Proof and Ad-Hoc Hypotheses
The true skeptic will apply her skepticism equally to conventional and unconventional claims, and even to skepticism itself. In particular, the true skeptic recognizes an ad-hoc hypothesis regardless of the source. The pseudoskeptic, on the other hand, reserves her critical facilities for unconventional claims only.
William R. Corliss, the author of The Sourcebook Project (a comprehensive collection of anomalies and unexplained phenomena reported in scientific journals) gives a salient example of that kind of behavior in the Journal of Scientific Exploration (Vol. 16, 3, p. 446):
“One would expect a lively interface between the Sourcebook Project and the several groups of skeptics, as typified by the Committee for the [Scientific] Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). After all, my catalogs do challenge those paradigms the skeptics defend so ferociously. Actually, there has been no traffic whatsoever. While mainstream Nature has reviewed five of my books, the skeptics have shown no interest in evaluating any of the Sourcebook publications. The skeptics, it seems, are never skeptical of established paradigms, only those observations that threaten to disestablish them.”
The Skeptic’s Dictionary, a leading pseudoskeptical online resource, gives us a great example of this selective blindness. Under the heading “ad hoc hypothesis”, we find the following definition:
“An ad hoc hypothesis is one created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory. Ad hoc hypotheses are common in paranormal research and in the work of pseudoscientists.”
What Todd Caroll, the author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary does not see fit to share with his readers is that some of the most celebrated “discoveries” of mainstream science are mere ad hoc hypotheses designed to cover the failure of theories to agree with observational evidence. Some of these ad hoc hypotheses, such as the hypothesis that almost all of the matter and energy of the universe exists in a form undetectable by the instruments of science, that there is a particle that causes mass (the Higgs Boson), and that people who fail to improve on AIDS drugs must be infected with a resistant mutation of HIV, are then taken as facts, with the strongest evidence for the existence being that accepted theory requires them! And yet, you will search skeptical publications in vain for truly skeptical discussion of these subjects (as opposed to ones that agree with the mainstream consensus). “The Mainstream Consensus Is Always Right” seems to be the motto.
The following is an anecdotal example of an ad-hoc theory in established science. In its June 2002 issue, Scientific American ran an article on AIDS that contained a chart titled “World AIDS Snapshot” (p. 41). Combining the absolute numbers of people who are HIV positive with population figures from the CIA world factbook, I found that in Australia/New Zealand, only one person in 1548 was HIV positive, while in North America (Mexico counts under Latin America, according to the UNAIDS website), 1 person in 329 was. Given that the predominant strain of HIV is the same in both regions (clade B), how can the rate of infection be almost 5 times higher in North America than in Australia/New Zealand? Sexual (mis)behavior in both regions is comparable, as evidenced by the fact that incidence rates for classical STDs are virtually identical (according to WHO figures for 1999):
1 in 196
1 in 192
1 in 78
1 in 79
1 in 71
1 in 72
1 in 78
1 in 77
1 in 329
1 in 1548
I emailed Sciam staff writer Carol Ezzell and inquired what the cause of this discrepancy could be. I received the following reply:
“Our statistics come from the UNAIDS [Website]. Australia/New Zealand has a 0.1 percent adult prevalence rate, whereas North America has a rate of 0.6 percent. Most of the cases of HIV infection in Australia/New Zealand occur in men who have sex with men. A key tipping point in the broadening of HIV infection occurs when the virus rages through IV drug abusers and then enters people (men and women) who have sex with those drug abusers. For whatever reason, this hasn’t happened in A./N.Z.”
Actually, the alleged broadening of HIV infection into a general epidemic that affects large numbers of heterosexuals has not happened anywhere in the developed world, even though it was widely predicted by experts in the 1980s. The claim that it somehow exists nonetheless, and, for some unknown reason, more so in North America than in Australia/New Zealand, is a perfect example of “a hypothesis created to explain away facts that seem to refute one’s theory”. Skepticism towards the prevailing view of “HIV/AIDS” seems to be called for, but you will find none in the pages of The Skeptical Inquirer and other “skeptical” publications.
Skeptic has published an article on this subject titled “The Aids Heresies – A Case Study in Skepticism Taken Too Far” (vol. 3, no. 2, 1995) by Steven B. Harris, M.D. that seeks to affirm the correctness of the conventional viewpoint and, in typical pseudoskeptical fashion, ignores at least one key argument of the AIDS critics. That is the argument that HIV tests are completely invalid. The Perth Group had already made that case in 1993 in a paper published in Bio/Technology (Vol.11 June 1993). Their claims were reported in a headline story on June 1, 1993 in the Sunday Times of London. Yet, over one year later, Dr. Harris does not even mention this critical component in the skeptical case against the conventional theory of HIV/AIDS in his article. Instead, he misleads his readers into believing that AIDS skeptics recognize the validity of HIV tests in the first place by stating that “critics of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis have had to struggle to keep up with sensitivity increases in HIV testing”.
To discuss an example in physics: University of Michigan physicist Gordon Kane writes about the Higgs Boson on the Scientific American Website under the heading “Ask the Experts”:
“There are currently two pieces of evidence that a Higgs boson does exist. The first is indirect. According to quantum field theory, all particles spend a little time as combinations of all other particles, including the Higgs boson. This changes their properties a little in ways that we know how to calculate and that have been well verified. Studies of the effect the Higgs boson has on other particles reveal that experiment and theory are consistent only if the Higgs boson exists and is lighter than around 170 giga electron volts (GeV), or about 180 proton masses. Because this is an indirect result, it is not rigorous proof. More concrete evidence of the Higgs came from an experiment conducted at the European laboratory for particle physics (CERN) using the Large Electron Positron (LEP) collider in its final days of operation. That research revealed a possible direct signal of a Higgs boson with mass of about 115 GeV and all the expected properties. Together these make a very convincing – although not yet definitive – case that the Higgs boson does indeed exist.”
A researcher making that kind of case for an unconventional phenomenon would be laughed out of town. A single sighting, so the skeptics would say, is anecdotal evidence and proves nothing. And that a theory requires it merely means that the scientists saw what they wanted to see. But particle physics is conventional science, hence different (i.e. much less stringent) standards of proof apply. Results are accepted, even said to be “convincing”, based on relatively weak and purely indirect evidence, and because a handful of experts vouch for their accuracy.
Another example of established science that should not be so established is the neutrino. Neutrinos are ghostlike particles that were introduced by Pauli as an ad-hoc hypothesis to save the relativistic law of energy conservation (which fails to correctly describe radioactive beta decay otherwise). Neutrinos can not be detected directly, and require giant detectors for indirect (statistical) detection. Decades of neutrino detection experiments have failed to detect the correct number of solar neutrinos. To account for the discrepancy, physicists have come up with the idea of neutrino oscillations. In other words, the neutrino meets several of Langmuir’s criteria of pathological science: the maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, the effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results and criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses. Maybe there is no neutrino, and the relativistic law of energy conservation is simply wrong? Autodynamics is a proposed theoretical alternative to relativity that correctly describes beta decay without a neutrino, but you won’t find it mentioned in physics journals or the pseudoskeptical literature.
So pseudoskeptics often fail to apply their skepticism to conventional wisdom. But worse yet, when confronted with evidence of unusual phenomena, pseudoskepticism itself will take refuge to outrageously arbitrary ad hoc hypotheses: swamp gas, duck butts and temperature inversions can create the appearance of flying vehicles in the sky, pranksters are able to produce elaborate geometrical designs in crops within seconds, in complete darkness, and without leaving footprints (but somehow changing the microscopic structure of the crops in a manner consistent with microwave heating), and shadows can conspire to make a mesa on Mars look like a face, an illusion that persists under different viewing angles and lighting conditions.
Critics of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (such as self-appointed “quackwatcher” Stephen Barrett) habitually employ this double standard. They will piously denounce alternative medical procedures for not having 100% cure rates, but ignore the fact that the side effects of conventional drugs kill over 100,000 in the US alone each year. They will condescendingly point to a lack of proper (i.e. double-blind) scientific studies supporting certain alternative procedures, and simultaneously ignore the fact that many conventional surgical procedures and drug protocols are equally unproven by the same standard. Worse yet, they will hold alternative medicine responsible for every case of malpractice that has ever been committed in its name, but they would not dream of applying the same standard to conventional medical practice.
The May 14, 2004 edition of Robert Park’s What’s New column contains the following gem:
“‘Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine (eCAM) is a new international journal that seeks to encourage rigorous research in this new, yet ancient world of complementary and alternative medicine… particularly traditional Asian healing systems.’ So begins an Oxford University Press announcement. All eCAM papers are available online at no cost and without subscription. Unlike other open-access journals there are no author submission fees. Who pays, skeptics might ask? The ‘generous support of Ishikawa Natural Medicinal Products Research Center, co-owner of the journal with OUP.’ Yes, it’s the ancient-wisdom scam. … Other industries might be equally generous. Perhaps the Journal of Gambling Studies, which deals with gambling addiction, could cut a deal with the slot-machine industry. And perhaps Join Together Online, which opposes gun violence, could team up with the National Rifle Association. On the other hand, maybe not.”
Park’s double standard with respect to medical ethics boggles the mind. Corruption and violation of scientific ethics is endemic in the maintream medical system. Drug companies are permitted to write their own studies or to pay allegedly independent researchers to produce results, and to suppress results that are not favourable to their products. Medical journals receive significant funding from the pharmaceutical industry through advertising. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times published on August 9, 2004, Marcia Angell, a former editor of The New England Journal of Medicine, made the following statement:
“Research is biased in favor of the drugs and drug makers. The pharmaceutical industry spends a great deal to influence people in academic medicine and professional societies. It does a super job of making sure [that] nearly every important person they can find in academic medicine [who] is involved in any way with drugs is hired as a consultant, as a speaker, is placed on an advisory board — and is paid generous amounts of money. Conflicts of interest are rampant. When The New England Journal of Medicine published a study of antidepressants, we didn’t have room to print all the authors’ conflict-of- interest disclosures. We had to refer people to the website. I wrote an editorial for the journal, titled ‘Is Academic Medicine for Sale?’ Someone wrote a letter to the editor that answered the question, ‘No. The current owner is very happy with it.’ That sums up the situation nicely.”
Dr. Park has evidently heard of Dr. Angell, because he mentions her as a skeptic of CAM in his May 11, 2001 column. But when the same person makes public statements that confirm that conventional medicine is suffering from a large-scale epidemic of the very same disease that Park finds intolerable in the field of CAM, he shows no interest, at least not in his What’s New column. If CAM studies are invalid because of financial conflicts of interests, should not the same ethical standard be applied to mainstream medicine? They should, but Dr. Park is apparently more interested in making a system of medicine he doesn’t like look bad than in applying ethical standards even-handedly and dispassionately.
Marcello Truzzi, one of the original founders of CSICOP, deftly exposes the hypocrisy of pseudoskepticism when he writes:
“Those who leap to call parapsychology a pseudoscience might do well to look more closely at the social sciences in general. Those who laugh at the implausibility of a possible plesiosaur in Loch Ness should take a close look at the arguments and evidence put forward for the Big Bang or black holes. Those who think it unreasonable to investigate reports of unidentified flying objects might do well to look carefully at the arguments and evidence of those who promote current attempts at contacting extraterrestrial intelligence allegedly present in other solar systems. Those who complain about the unscientific status quo of psychic counselors should be willing to examine the scientific status of orthodox psychotherapy and make truly scientific comparisons. Those who sneer at phony prophets in our midst might also do well to look at the prognosticators in economics and sociology who hold official positions as ‘scientific forecasters’. Those who concern themselves about newspaper horoscopes and their influence might do well to look at what the ‘real’ so-called helping professions are doing. The scientist who claims to be a skeptic, a zetetic, is willing to investigate empirically the claims of the American Medical Association as well as those of the faith healer; and, more important, he should be willing to compare the empirical results for both before defending one and condemning the other.”
Cremo and Thompson, in Forbidden Archeology, p. 24, write under the heading “The Phenomenon of Suppression”:
“One prominent feature in the treatment of anomalous evidence is what we could call the double standard. All paleoanthropological evidence tends to be complex and uncertain. Practically any evidence in this field can be challenged, for if nothing else, one can always raise charges of fraud. What happens in practice is that evidence agreeing with a prevailing theory tends to be treated very leniently. Even if it has grave defects, these tend to be overlooked. In contrast, evidence that goes against an accepted theory tends to be subjected to intense critical scrutiny, and it is expected to meet a very high standard of proof.”
Skeptics, both of the genuine and the pseudo variety, have elevated this double standard to a principle of science: extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence! But this principle does not hold up to logical scrutiny, because a claim is only ordinary or extraordinary in relation to a theory. For the sake of making this point, let us assume a scenario in a hypothetical new science in which there are two pieces of evidence to be discovered, A and B, each equally credible, each one suggesting an obvious, but incorrect explanation (call them (1) and (2)). (1) and (2) are mutually incompatible, and a third, highly non obvious explanation (3) that accounts for both A and B is actually correct.
As chance would have it, one of the two pieces of evidence A,B will be discovered first. Let A be that piece of evidence, and further suppose that the scientists working in that hypothetical field all subscribe to the principle of the double standard. After the discovery of A, they will adopt explanation (1) as the accepted theory of their field. At a later time, when B is discovered, it will be dismissed because it contradicts (1), and because A and B are equally credible, but A is ordinary relative to (1) and B is extraordinary.
The end result is that our hypothetical science has failed to self-correct. The incorrect explanation (1) has been accepted, and the correct explanation (3) was never found, because B was rejected. I therefore submit that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is not suitable as a guiding principle for sound scientific research. All evidence, whether it supports accepted theories or not, should be given the same level of critical scrutiny.
Pseudoskeptics of course would argue that they simply do not have the resources to be skeptical about everything, so they have to concentrate on the obvious targets. But that doesn’t get them off the hook. Pseudoskeptics apply the “extraordinary evidence” standard only selectively to controversial phenomena- namely, precisely when they fit their ideological preconceptions! When Doug Bower and David Chorley made the extraordinary claim that they had created all of the thousands of crop circles that had appeared in English fields between 1978 and 1991 (some of which had appeared on the same night in different regions of the country), there were no armies of skeptics loudly insisting that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. Apparently, as long as the extraordinary claim is one that agrees with what the pseudoskeptics have “known” all along, it does not even require ordinary evidence. Bower and Chorley were never able to substantiate their claim, let alone prove it, but the “skeptical” community accepted it on faith – and without a trace of skepticism.
Responding to Claims that Were Not Made
(Demolishing Straw Men)
Benveniste (who showed that ultradilutions, i.e. homeopathic preparations not containing a single molecule of the original substance can still have a biological effect) was attacked by Nature editor John Maddox with the argument that dilutions of the kind used by Benveniste can simply not exist because they would require “1074 world oceans” (that is more water than contained in the entire universe) to manufacture. That is correct, if the definition of “dilution” requires that at least one molecule remain, but Benveniste (and generations of homeopaths) have readily conceded that very point! Everyone agrees that high homeopathic dilutions do not contain a single active molecule, so Maddox’s argument is nothing but the ritual dissection of a straw man. He is not alone – “skeptical” discussions of homeopathy invariably spend a lot of time making this completely uncontested point.
Our favourite resource for invalid criticisms, the Skeptic’s Dictionary, tries to downplay the important of the Gauquelin data by stressing that correlation does not imply causation. But astrologers do not claim causation! Both adherents and skeptics agree that astrology is a branch of magic, and as such is based on the principle of correspondences. This principle claims that nature exhibits meaningful, not necessarily causally mediated analogous behavior on all levels. The Gauquelin data shows correlation between the movements of the planets and certain aspects of human behavior; nothing more is claimed by astrology.
In a personal note published on James Randi’s Website, Robert Park makes the following statement about the “Motionless Electromagnetic Generator”, a claimed free energy device:
“I’ve been following the MEG claim since Patent 6,362,718 was issued in the spring (What’s New, April 4, 2002). The claim, of course, is preposterous. It is a clear violation of the conservation of energy.”
But Park is only demolishing a straw man. The first law of thermodynamics states that the energy of a closed system is conserved. But the inventors of the MEG claim that their device takes energy from the zero-point field of the vacuum, thereby conserving the energy of the total system (which in this case would be the MEG and the surrounding vacuum). Whether it can actually do that is an open question. But the existence of the Casimir force proves that in principle such extraction of energy from the vacuum is possible (even though the potential energy gained from the Casimir force between two plates is negligible). Therefore, one cannot dismiss claims for free energy devices such as the MEG on a priori grounds of energy conservation. Since Park is a physicists, he could not possibly be unaware of this. By making this argument, he is therefore intentionally misrepresenting the claims of the MEG inventors. They do not claim to have found a way around the first law; they merely claim to have accessed a source of energy not previously accessible to human technology.
(Note: The author is aware of no legitimate scientific evidence that the MEG works as claimed. The purpose of this example is not to suggest that it is a legitimate “free energy” device, but simply to point out the invalid nature of some of the arguments against it.)
Technically Correct Pseudo-Refutation
(credit for the term goes to Daniel Drasin)
Pseudoskeptics are fond of arguing that hundreds of respectable scientists believe that a certain idea is bunk, and therefore, it must be. When one points out to them that many scientific breakthroughs were ridiculed and dismissed by the scientific establishment of the time, they retort that not every idea that has been ridiculed or dismissed turned out to be correct. Correct, but completely irrelevant, because it responds to an argument that was not made. The argument was not that ridicule or dismissal by scientific experts is sufficient grounds for accepting an unorthodox claim, simply that it is insufficient grounds for rejecting it.
Robert T. Carroll, a Professor of Philosophy at the Sacramento City College no less, falls into this logical trap when he writes in his Skeptic’s Dictionary about what he calls “selective thinking”:
“Let’s begin with his version of the ‘they laughed at Galileo, so I must be right’ fallacy, a non sequitur variation of selective thinking.
“In his book Alternative Science, and on his web site under what he calls Skeptics who declared discoveries and inventions impossible, Milton lists a number of inventors and scientists who struggled to get their ideas accepted. Many were ridiculed along the way. But, like many others who commit this fallacy, Milton omits some important, relevant data. He does not mention that there are also a great number of inventors, scientists and thinkers who were laughed at and whose ideas have never been accepted. Many people accused of being crackpots turned out to be crackpots. Some did not. Thus, being ridiculed and rejected for one’s ideas is not a sign that one is correct. It is not a sign of anything important about the idea which is being rejected. Thus, finding large numbers of skeptics who reject ideas as being ‘crackpot ideas’ does not strengthen the likelihood of those ideas being correct. The number of skeptics who reject an idea is completely irrelevant to the truth of the idea. Ideas such as alien abduction, homeopathy, psychokinesis, orgone energy, ESP, free energy, spontaneous human combustion, and the rejection of evolution – all favored by Milton – are not supported in the least by the fact that these ideas are trashed by thousands of skeptics.”
True, but irrelevant! Milton’s argument shows precisely what it is supposed to show: that the skeptic’s knee-jerk dismissal of unorthodox claimants as “pseudo-scientists”, “fringe-scientists” and “crackpots” simply carries no evidentiary weight one way or another. In his skeptical zeal to convict Milton of blundering in the realm of logic, Carroll commits a much more elementary error than selective reasoning: he responds to an argument that is not being made. Milton’s argument is not “they laughed at Galileo, therefore every unconventional claimant is right”, it is merely “they laughed at Galileo, therefore unconventional claimants cannot be presumed wrong.”
Carroll’s attempt to hold Milton responsible for an argument not made is a variation of the popular pseudoskeptical technique of Demolishing Straw Men.
Making Criticisms that Apply Equally to Conventional
and Unconventional Research
It should be obvious that a criticism is invalid if it applies just as well to established science as it applies to an unconventional claim (such a criticism is called uncontrolled). But pseudoskeptics get away with using this technique anyway. What follows are some common examples of uncontrolled and therefore invalid criticisms.
Demanding an Unreasonable Degree of Reproducibility
Reproducibility means that a phenomenon can be demonstrated on demand, anywhere, at any time. Pseudoskeptics believe that an unconventional phenomenon can safely be considered nonexistent unless it is reproducible in this sense. But the same standard of evidence would invalidate much of accepted science. Discoveries in archeology are by their nature unique, non reproducible. Astronomy and geology are not reproducible in the strictest sense – astronomers cannot produce a supernova on demand, nor can geologists an earthquake. Even physics, the “hardest” of all sciences, is less and less reproducible in practice. Cutting-edge discoveries of high-energy physics, such as the discovery of the top quark are accepted by the physical community and then the public largely on faith, because no one else has the facilities to replicate them. The top quark is simply one of those discoveries whose experimental verification is beyond amateur science.
Similarly, the complete inability of ordinary humans to influence macroscopic systems with their minds alone, even in the slightest, strongly suggests that mind-matter interaction, if it exists, will be hard to demonstrate experimentally. A skeptic who rejects the conclusion of statistically sound meta-analysis of decades of mind-matter experiments because she feels that the phenomenon should be proven directly, by producing a person who can consistently, say, levitate objects, should similarly reject the discovery of the top quark until such time as a demonstration kit be made available that allows any physics high school teacher to produce said particle on the kitchen top. Either demand is unreasonable and denies the difficult nature of the subject matter.
Pseudoskeptics try to invalidate unconventional claims by pointing out that the claimants derive financial support from their research (through books, newsletters or speaking engagements), blithely ignoring that conventional scientists derive their livelihood from their work as well. If a cold fusion researcher who is trying to commercialize his discoveries is a priori suspect, should not by the same token the hot fusion physicist’s 1989 dismissal of the cold fusion discovery be viewed with extreme suspicion, since their very livelihood depends on the continued flow of billions of federal research dollars into their field, a field that has produced no tangible results, despite 50 years of research?
To mention an anecdotal example, I have personally observed skeptics of the claim of adverse biological effects from microwave radiation produced by cellular devices having the gall to argue that critics of cellular technology cannot possibly be taken seriously because they make money from publishing their criticisms, while the same skeptics do not find fault with studies funded and written by the multi-billion-dollar cellular industry!
“Statistics can prove anything!”
Such is essentially the argument that the spokesman of the American Physical Society, Robert L. Park, makes against psychokinetic research in his book Voodoo Science (p. 199). In the context of a discussion of an obviously pseudoscientific Good Morning America report on anomalous phenomena (debunkery by association: as if TV shows were the principal outlet for reporting the results of psi research!), Park writes:
“Why, you may wonder, all this business of random machines? Jahn has studied random number generators, water fountains in which the subject tries to urge drops to greater heights, all sorts of machines. But it is not clear that any of these machines are truly random. Indeed, it is generally believed that there are no truly random machines. It may be, therefore, that the lack of randomness only begins to show up after many trials. Besides, if the mind can influence inanimate objects, why not simply measure the static force the mind can exert? Modern ultramicrobalances can routinely measure a force of much less than a billionth of an ounce. Why not just use your psychokinetic powers to deflect a microbalance? It’s sensitive, simple, even quantitative, with no need for any dubious statistical analysis.”
There are many things wrong with this statement, and I refer the reader to my review of Park’s book for details. For the purpose of this argument, I am interested in Park’s assessment that effects that are only indirectly detected, by statistical analysis, are suspect. Where does that leave conventional science? Deprived of one of its most powerful tools of analysis. The cherished 1992 COBE discovery of minute fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background radiation would have to be thrown out, since it was entirely statistical in nature, and therefore by Park’s argument, ‘dubious’. The most celebrated discoveries of particle physics, such as the 1995 discovery of the top quark, or the results of neutrino detection experiments, or the synthesis of superheavy, extremely short-lived elements, would have to be thrown out, since they, too, are indirect and statistical in nature. Modern medicine would have to be invalidated as well because it relies on statistical analysis (of double-blind trials) to prove the efficacy of drugs.
For comparison: the American Institute of Physics’s Bulletin of Physics News (216; March 3, 1995) gives the odds against chance for the top quark discovery as a million to one. A 1987 meta-analysis performed by Dean Radin and Roger Nelson of RNG (random number generator) experiments between 1959 and 1987 , on the other hand, shows the existence of an anomalous deviation from chance with odds against chance exceeding one trillion to one (see Radin, The Conscious Universe, p. 140).
Park’s argument is the quintessential uncontrolled criticism: accepted scientific methods that constitute the backbone of modern science suddenly become questionable when they are used on phenomena that don’t fit his ideological predilections.
“Fraud cannot be ruled out!”
The pseudoskeptical argument of last resort. If a body of research supporting an unconventional claim is airtight, the pseudoskeptic will argue that since the conclusion contradicts established theories of nature (she will call them “facts”), and all other alternative explanations have been exhausted, the results must therefore be due to fraud. Of course, such an argument from theory turns the scientific method on its head (unless the skeptic can prove that fraud has actually been committed) , but what is more important, the same argument can be made for any research. Indeed, when funding or scientific prestige are at stake, results are frequently faked in the conventional sciences, probably much more frequently than in, say, parapsychology where skeptical scrutiny is intense.
“It’s Unsafe!” (In Medicine)
A favorite argument of the professional “quackbusters” like Stephen Barret is that an alternative procedure is unsafe. On the Acupuncture page of his site, Barret states that:
“Improperly performed acupuncture can cause fainting, local hematoma (due to bleeding from a punctured blood vessel), pneumothorax (punctured lung), convulsions, local infections, hepatitis B (from unsterile needles), bacterial endocarditis, contact dermatitis, and nerve damage.”
…missing the mark of controlled criticism by a wide margin. Why not similarly list the dangers of improperly performed surgery and then denounce the whole field as quackery?
Accusations of Selective Reporting
(File Drawer Effect)
One of the standard criticisms levered by pseudoskeptics against unconventional research that relies on statistics (primarily parapsychology) is that only successful experiments were reported and the unsuccessful ones were suppressed (by burying them in the “file drawer”). Unlike the previous criticisms, the file drawer criticism is valid in principle, but I mention it in this list anyway because pseudoskeptics obsess only about the (largely imaginary) file drawers of the parapsychologists while ignoring the large file drawers of suppressed conventional science.
To cite just a few examples of what has been buried in those file drawers: fundamental criticisms of relativity are a priori ineligible for publication in the mainstream scientific journals. That’s why most physicists are not aware of experimental evidence that apparently refutes special relativity. Positive results on cold fusion are similarly banned from publication, as are papers that radically question the accepted time line of human evolution. Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology contains several hundred pages of archeological discoveries that have been left to be forgotten in that particular file drawer. Veteran astronomer Halton Arp, who has been made a persona non grata in astronomy due to his discovery that modern cosmology is catastrophically wrong, describes how most of his own papers ended up in the astronomical “file drawer” instead of the astronomical journals as follows (Arp, Seeing Red, 1998):
“In the beginning there was an unspoken covenant that observations were so important that they should be published and archived with only a minimum of interpretation at the end of the paper. Gradually this practice eroded as authors began making and reporting only observations which agreed with their starting premises. The next step was that these same authors, as referees, tried to force the conclusions to support their own and then finally, rejected the papers when they did not. As a result more and more important observational results are simply not being published at the journals in which one would habitually look for such results. The referees themselves, with the aid of compliant editors, have turned what was originally a helpful system into a chaotic and mostly unprincipled form of censorship.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the file-drawer of medical and other profit-oriented research that has been suppressed due to economic conflicts of interest is at least as thick as the body of published research. The tobacco industry had suppressed evidence that smoking causes cancer for decades, and the chemical industry has likewise suppressed evidence of public-health risks caused by its products. Examples of manipulated drug trials in medicine are legion. On July 25, 2002 The Nation published a special report titled Big Pharma, Bad Science that gives the following devastating assessment of the quality of modern medical research:
“In June, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the most respected medical journals, made a startling announcement. The editors declared that they were dropping their policy stipulating that authors of review articles of medical studies could not have financial ties to drug companies whose medicines were being analyzed. The reason? The journal could no longer find enough independent experts. Drug company gifts and “consulting fees” are so pervasive that in any given field, you cannot find an expert who has not been paid off in some way by the industry. So the journal settled for a new standard: Their reviewers can have received no more than $10,000 from companies whose work they judge. Isn’t that comforting? This announcement by the New England Journal of Medicine is just the tip of the iceberg of a scientific establishment that has been pervasively corrupted by conflicts of interest and bias, throwing doubt on almost all scientific claims made in the biomedical field.
“Unknown to many readers is the fact that the data being discussed was often collected and analyzed by the maker of the drug involved in the test. An independent 1996 study found that 98 percent of scientific papers based on research sponsored by corporations promoted the effectiveness of a company’s drug. By comparison, 79 percent of independent studies found that a new drug was effective. This corruption reaches from the doctors prescribing a drug to government review boards to university research centers.
“Increasingly, the industry has converted academic research centers into subsidiaries of the companies. The billions of dollars of academic government funding essentially pays to flush out negative results, while private industry gets to profit from any successful result.
And the results are expensive and sometimes tragic for the public. Experimental clinical drug trials are hazardous to participants and, more broadly, critical to those with life threatening conditions who need to know which treatments are fruitless to pursue. Yet researchers on industry payrolls end up pressured to suppress negative results. At the most basic level, researchers who defy their corporate sponsors know they may lose their funding.”
Writer John Anthony West and geologist Robert M. Schoch have uncovered commanding geological evidence that the Egyptian Sphinx is thousands of years older than conventionally assumed, but their data has been, and is still being ignored by conventional Egyptology. When confronted with this research, Egyptologists have no explanation for it, but they insist that it cannot possibly be correct, because it contradicts their theories.
This site contains many more examples of suppressed and ignored discoveries spanning virtually the entire spectrum of human sciences. By the standards set by the pseudoskeptics themselves, therefore, almost all of science would have to be invalid. Pseudoskeptic Michael Shermer writes in “Baloney Detection” (Scientific American 11/2001, p. 36):
“Watch out for a pattern of fringe thinking that consistently ignores or distorts data.”
But “consistently ignoring and distorting data” is pervasive in physics, astronomy, biology, medicine, psychology, archeology and paleoanthropology. The “file drawer effect”, while not uncontrolled per se is therefore in practice an uncontrolled criticism. Due to the broken peer review system and massive conflicts of interest in commercial science, it applies to and invalidates much of accepted science.
Trying to End the Race when Their Side is Ahead
In any scientific controversy, there will be confirming evidence from some scientists and disconfirming evidence from others. Otherwise, there would not be a controversy. Resolving such controversies takes many iterations of new and better experiments, publication and criticism. In a head-to-head race, the lead will change often. Sometimes, the confirming evidence will gain the upper hand, and then the disconfirming evidence is ahead again. Pseudoskeptics are always trying to end the race prematurely, when they’re ahead, and declare victory. As an example, consider Randi’s never-ending tirades against homeopathy. If you study his website, you will see that all he ever quotes is disconfirming medical studies, while the ones that confirm homeopathy are conveniently ignored.
Try it yourself. Use Google to search Randi’s website for Madeleine Ennis homeopathy and see how many hits you get. One. And that one just mentions Ennis’ name in the context of discussing a disconfirming study, and calls her a “pharmacist from Belfast.” Relying solely on Randi’s site, a reader would never know that the woman is a professor of Immunopharmacology at Queen’s University, Belfast, and that she and others have produced a ground-breaking replication of Benveniste’s seminal work on ultradilutions.
This kind of biased, selective reporting of evidence cannot be excused by ignorance. It is indicative of malice and constitutes intellectual fraud.
Theory Overrides Evidence
The pseudoskeptic holds a firm belief that certain phenomena are a priori impossible, regardless of the evidence. This belief is contrary to the scientific method were theory always yields to the primacy of observation. A theory that is contradicted by evidence must be modified or discarded, no matter how aesthetically pleasing or prestigious it is. If an observation is made that cannot be accounted for by any existing theory, then the observation must be carefully checked and double-checked for errors. If no errors are found, then the observation must enter into the canon of scientific fact, regardless of whether it is explained by theory.
Most pseudoskeptics operate on assumptions about science that are precisely contrary to this principle. Carroll makes a typical argument when he writes about homeopathy:
“The known laws of physics and chemistry would have to be completely revamped if a tonic from which every molecule of the “active” ingredient were removed could be shown to nevertheless to be effective.”
Indeed they would. This process is known as science, as opposed to the pseudoscientific dogmatizing of the fact-resistant pseudoskeptics.
In his August 6, 2004 What’s New column, Robert L. Park delivers the following example of theory-over-evidence reasoning:
“COINCIDENCE: IS YOUR RANDOM NUMBER GENERATOR SPEAKING ARABIC? If it is, you may want to take cover, or seek professional help. In the August issue of Psychology Today, parapsychologist Dean Radin is quoted as claiming random number generators (RNGs) were uncharacteristically coherent in the hours just before the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and again before Madrid. Coincidences like that don’t just happen; ‘events with worldwide impact focus consciousness and that influences the functioning of machines’. Radin heads the Global Consciousness Project, with 75 totally deluded researchers around the world monitoring RNGs to see if they predict terrorist attacks. Are RNGs the only machines that act up? What about elevators and missile launchers? This is scary. No, not the machines, the fact that there are that many researchers that haven’t got a clue about how things are, and people with money willing to fund them.”
The argument is simple. Theologist Park just knows “how things are”, and no amount of empirical evidence to the contrary can sway him. His argument consists solely of the application of ridicule and the ad-hominem, and is entirely devoid of scientific reasoning.
The pseudoskeptical principle of theory overrides evidence was spelled out explicitly in an article titled “Natural Laws” in the September/October 2000 issue of The Skeptical Inquirer. It concedes that “some [natural] laws are still ‘under construction’-being debated by the scientific community”. But then it confidently asserts:
“Fortunately, in the macroscopic (‘real’) world, the subject of this article, physics has revealed to us definite rules by which nature always operates-rules for establishing what is physically possible and for eliminating the impossible. We have confidence in these laws because with all the observations and experiments that have been (and continue to be) performed, no exception to them has yet come to light; that is, they constitute the best explanation of the natural world available to us today.”
This argument is breathtaking in its sheer ignorance and circularity. Mountains of anomalous evidence produced by 100 years of parapsychological and other kinds of heterodox research are ignored or rejected by the skeptic because these results “contradict the laws of nature”, and because the laws of nature are assumed to be complete, and the completeness of the known laws of nature is in turn justified by the absence of evidence to the contrary! This thinking is so manifestly irrational, it can only be explained as the psychological condition of denial.
Misapplying Occam’s Razor
In science, the simplest explanation tends to be the best. Pseudoskeptics usually insist that this heuristic rule of thumb is an immutable law of nature! In addition, they usually confuse simplicity with familiarity, and explanation with rationalization. For example, given that for over 50 years, observers from all walks of life including university professors, airline pilots, military personnel, policemen, Senators and US presidents have witnessed unidentified flying objects with operational characteristics that far surpass current aircraft designs (such as ability to make right-angle turns at high velocities), that many of these unexplained sightings are backed up by radar observations, photographic, video or physical evidence, and given that UFO pseudoskeptics have to resort to far-fetched logical contortions, highly improbable coincidences and laughable ad-hoc hypotheses to explain away these observations (such as the idea that swamp gas can create the appearance of flying objects in the sky), one must conclude that the hypothesis that some UFOs represent real flying objects is the simplest explanation. The complicated ad-hoc “explanations” (really rationalizations) of the UFO pseudoskeptics cannot compete with the unified explanatory power of that simple hypothesis.
Dislike of the Consequences
Sometimes, pseudoskeptics will make the argument that a certain phenomenon cannot be actually occurring because the consequences would be too unsettling. For example, on CNN’s Larry King Live, UFO Skeptic Philip Klass once responded to an argument that the alien abduction phenomenon is real by stating that “if these things were true, the social consequences would be intolerable!”
Park’s argument quoted above is another example. He finds the research generated by the Global Consciousness Project wholly unpalatable because it scares him. The claim that the correct functioning of sensitive equipment that we entrust our lives to is subject to subtle mental effects is indeed frightening. But that does not refute the claim.
Refusal to see the totality of the evidence: any single case of an anomalous phenomenon, no matter how strong, can always be disposed of by claiming that the observer involved is a fraud, or was suffering from hallucination. But when there are hundreds, or thousands of similar cases, this explanation clearly becomes inadequate. There is a low, but nonzero probability that any single UFO sighting is fraudulent, but the combined probability that thousands and thousands of UFO sightings by credible, highly educated observers over five decades are all bogus is next to zero. There is a low, but nonzero probability that a single paranormal researcher might be a fraud, and reporting the results of fictional experiments, but the probability that there is a global conspiracy of scientists who spend whole lives counterfeiting research, which has been going on for over a century, is clearly next to zero.
The pseudoskeptic strictly refuses to appreciate the evidence as a whole. Every time she dismisses a case on the grounds that the evidence is not strong enough (because the probability of chance or fraud is technically nonzero), the pseudoskeptic forgets all about it and approaches the next, similar case as if there was no precedent. Or worse yet, the skeptic dismisses a new case solely on the ground that she has dismissed similar cases in the past! The pseudoskeptical case against cold fusion seems to rest almost entirely on this kind of attitude these days.
Allen Hynek wrote about this pseudoskeptical fallacy:
“Probabilities, of course, can never prove a thing. When, however, in the course of UFO investigations one encounters many cases, each having a fairly high probability that “a genuinely new empirical observation” was involved, the probability that a new phenomenon was not observed becomes very small, and it gets smaller still as the number of cases increases. The chances, then, that something really new is involved are very great, and any gambler given such odds would not hesitate for a moment to place a large bet… Any one UFO case, if taken by itself without regard to the accumulated worldwide data … can almost always be dismissed by assuming that in that particular case a very unusual set of circumstances occurred, of low probability … But when cases of this sort accumulate in noticeable numbers, it no longer is scientifically correct to apply the reasoning one applies to a single isolated case.”
F.C.S. Schiller remarked on the same subject:
“A mind unwilling to believe or even undesirous to be instructed, our weightiest evidence must ever fail to impress. It will insist on taking that evidence in bits and rejecting item by item. As all the facts come singly, anyone who dismisses them one by one is destroying the condition under which the conviction of a new truth could ever arise in the mind.”
Setting Arbitrary Standards of Proof and Moving the Goalposts
That is to say, changing previously agreed upon standards of evidence when those standards have been met.
This is how pseudoskeptics have been able to say with a straight face that there is not a shred of evidence for extraterrestrial visitation for almost six decades. When there were only eyewitness reports, they wanted credible eyewitnesses, such as university professors, doctors or law enforcement officers. When they got that, they wanted photos. When they got photos, they wanted videos and physical evidence. When they got both, they reverted to the safe demand of the landing on the White House lawn.
What is wrong with that demand? Every hypothesis must be tested on its own predictions. If a hypothesis requires a certain event to happen, and that event is not observed, then the hypothesis is falsified. But there is no logical basis for the conclusion that if extraterrestrials exist, they would want to make their presence generally known. Extrapolating from the way that human zoologists use stealth to observe wild animals, we would tend to expect extraterrestrials to behave in the same fashion towards us. The “White House Test” for ETs is therefore illogical, because the ET hypothesis does not predict this event to happen. That the ET hypothesis has so far failed this arbitrary and unreasonable test means nothing.
Park’s demand for a psychokinetic who can deflect a microbalance (in Voodoo Science) is of a similarly arbitrary nature. Even if it were met, ample historical precedent teaches us that the skeptics would dismiss this ability as a stage magician’s trick, or as anecdotal evidence that proves nothing. The pseudoskeptics would, in other words, move the goalposts.
Former Nature editor John Maddox “moved the goalposts” in an attempt to get rid of Benveniste’s paper. Even though Benveniste’s research was solid, he would not publish it until it had been replicated by three independent laboratories. But when that condition had unexpectedly been satisfied, and Maddox had been forced to publish it, he remained convinced of the invalidity of the research and abused his position of power to discredit it.
Debunkery by Association
If paranormal phenomena are real, then we might just as well believe in werewolves, fairies and unicorns! To rhetorically imply, by means of direct suggestion or innuendo, that attempts at serious research into anomalous phenomena are no more credible than psychic hot lines, tabloid reports of miracles and newspaper horoscopes. James Randi is very fond of this rhetorical technique, as he uses it ad nauseam and beyond:
“… cold fusion is a dead duck, the earth is not flat, and the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Effectively, Randi is suggesting that there is some kind of connection between research into anomalous energy production associated with hydrogen and astrology and the belief that the earth is flat. A variation of this technique is to associate serious unconventional research with mass media outlets that report on it – Park’s grotesque discussion of parapsychological phenomena as reported by a sensationalist, unscientific ABC program in his book Voodoo Science (p. 195-200) was already mentioned above.
Another variation on this theme is to associate an unconventional claimant with convicted frauds who are associated with the field. Of course, there is incompetence and fraud in every profession. There are surgeons who cut off a wrong leg and scientists who falsify data, but that does not lead skeptics to conclude that every surgeon is a quack and all of science is bogus. But exactly that kind of wild, slanderous generalization is commonly employed by pseudoskeptics to discredit unconventional fields of inquiry. When it comes to free energy, they discuss free energy con-man Dennis Lee. To discredit parapsychology, they devote much time and effort to Uri Geller, Miss Cleo and John Edward. To ridicule UFO research, they keep going back to Adamski and his claims of arian dream women from Venus. To discredit crop circles, they emphasize stories of crop circle researchers who were fooled by hoaxers, as if that somehow forbade the existence of the real thing. The possibility of health benefits from magnetic fields is repudiated by emphasizing obviously worthless charms and bracelets advertised in the yellow press. Acupuncture is dismissed as unsafe because it has lead to serious injury in the hands of unqualified practitioners.
To illustrate, here comes an excerpt from Robert L. Park’s What’s New column of Friday, April 5, 2002. Under the title “Free Energy: Perpetual Motion Scams Are At An All-Time High”, Park attempts to discredit the Motionless Electromagnetic Generator by associating it with Dennis Lee:
“In 1999, I went to Columbus, Ohio for ABC News to witness Dennis Lee demonstrate a permanent-magnet motor that was ‘more than 200% efficient.’ Actually, he didn’t really demonstrate it. He stuck a magnet on the side of a steel file cabinet; turning to the audience he asked, ‘How long do you think that magnet will stay there?’ He answered his own question, ‘Forever. That’s infinite energy.’ Don’t laugh, this week, Patent 6,362,718 was issued for a ‘Motionless Electromagnetic Generator’ that ‘extracts energy from a permanent magnet with energy-replenishing from the active vacuum’.”
The truly skeptical reader might wonder why Lee’s 1999 “demonstration” is “new” on April 5, 2002. The answer, of course, is that it isn’t. It just needed to be exhumed because the MEG is too difficult to ridicule, given that (unlike Lee) its team of creators are physicists, its function is described in the peer-reviewed literature (Foundation of Physics Letters, 2001), that it has apparently been independently replicated by French inventor Jean-Louis Naudin and that no attempts are being made to solicit investments from individuals. To still effectively discredit the MEG (which Park, of course, has never examined in person), he talks about a known free-energy scam-artist in order to get the reader into a suitably dismissive mood, and then switches the target of his criticism at the last second, coupled with an appeal to emotional consensus implied in the phrase “don’t laugh”. (For clarification: I do not claim to possess any knowledge or evidence that the MEG actually works as claimed, or that the theory behind it has any merit whatsoever. My point is to illustrate the nature of Park’s merely rhetorical dismissal of the MEG.
Yet another outfit of scientific arrogance that practices debunkery by association to ridicule unconventional research is IG Nobel, an organization that awards its “IG Nobel Prize” annually for “achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced”. Browsing through the list of past winners, we find a long list of recipients who were more than deserving of this dubious honor. In 1991, Dan Quayle, “consumer of time and occupier of space”, is being recommended for demonstrating “the need for science education”, and Edward Teller “for his lifelong efforts to change the meaning of peace as we know it”. But the same year also sees Jacques Benveniste attacked and ridiculed for what future historians of science will come to recognize as one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century, the experimental proof that water can carry information. The precise phrasing of the award also uses other pseudoskeptical techniques such as the ad-hominem (“prolific proseletizer”) and misinterpretation of the actual claim (Benveniste never claimed that water is “intelligent”).
Dismissing Claims Because of Their Philosophical Pedigree
Where debunkery by association seeks to discredit claims by linking them with similar, but unrelated, claims, this technique seeks to discredit ideas by discounting their empirical merits in favor of their philosophical origins. The Skeptic’s Dictionary gives us once again a prime example. Under the heading “alternative health practices”, we find the following definition:
“Health or medical practices are called ‘alternative’ if they are based on untested, untraditional or unscientific principles, methods, treatments or knowledge. ‘Alternative’ medicine is often based upon metaphysical beliefs and is frequently anti-scientific.”
But doctors of alternative medicine are frequently more scientific than their conventional colleagues. While the former employ modalities whose safety and efficacy has been demonstrated by decades (nutrition), centuries (homeopathy) or millennia (acupuncture) of clinical practice, the latter frequently derive their “scientific” knowledge from biased information and rigged drug studies communicated by pharma lobbyists. Death from alternative medicine is practically unheard of, but side-effects of conventional treatments are estimated to kill 100,000 people in the United States every year. It is therefore hard to dismiss alternative medicine on empirical grounds.
Yet for the pseudoskeptics, alternative medicine remains “unscientific”, even “anti-scientific”, because much of it is inspired by ancient beliefs and metaphysical ideas, such as the notion of a vital energy that animates the body, or the idea that thoughts create physical reality, not the other way. Pseudoskeptics find the notion that ancient civilizations could have known things that are still beyond the understanding of our current civilization deeply offensive. As rationalists, they believe that our ancestors were without exception superstitious, ignorant savages, and that our current understanding of nature represents the highest level of scientific knowledge that has ever existed on this planet. They are therefore categorically unwilling to entertain the notion that there could be any truth or validity to medical practices that were not developed by mechanistic, reductionist Western medicine. Whether or not alternative medicine has any merit is not at all a scientific question for them – it’s personal.
Truly scientific thinking, of course, accepts truth based on evidence alone, regardless of the philosophies and beliefs of the messenger. To a scientific mind, the question of why Samuel Hahnemann came up with the idea of curing people with medicines that are so highly diluted that little or no trace remains of the original substance, has no bearing on the question of whether homeopathy has therapeutic value.
Another example of “dismissing claims because of their philosophical pedigree” is how academic paleoanthropology reacted to the challenge posed by Cremo and Thompson’s Forbidden Archeology. Critics like to point out that the authors are “Hindu creationists” as if that somehow implied that their scholarly achievement was without merit. But from a logical point of view, the value of the arguments made and evidence presented by Cremo and Thompson is completely independent of the religious beliefs that motivated the research in the first place, just like the big bang theory is not automatically false because it is compatible with the Christian religious belief that our universe was created.
Slurs and Ridicule
The true skeptic refrains from ad hominem attacks and name calling while the pseudoskeptic elevates them to an art form. Examples abound in pseudoskeptical books and periodicals.
I conclude this little phenomenology of pseudoskepticism with an extensive quotation that reads like a compendium of invalid criticisms. It is taken from The Memory of Water, an account of the scientific witch hunt against Jacques Benveniste. Its author, French biologist Michel Schiff gives a list of phrases directed by scientists at Benveniste and his research, which I quote in its entirety:
“A ‘bizarre new theory’, a ‘unicorn in a back yard’, a ‘Catch-22-situation’, ‘some form of energy hitherto unknown in physics’, ‘cloud-cuckoo-land’, ‘unbelievable research results’, ‘sticking to old paradigms’, ‘defying the rules of physics’, a ‘hypothesis as unnecessary as it is fanciful’, ‘data that did not seem to make sense’, ‘ discouraging fantasy’, ‘unbelievable circumstances’, ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘unbelievable results’, the ‘product of careless enthusiasm’, a ‘200-year-old brand of medicine that most Western physicians consider to be harmless quackery at best’,’dilutions of grandeur’, the ‘egotism and folly of this man who rushes into print with a claim so staggering that if true would revolutionize physics and medicine’, ‘mystical powers’, ‘magic’, ‘quackery’, ‘charlatanism’, a ‘therapy without scientific rationale’,’unicorns revisited’, an ‘explanation beloved of modern homeopaths’, a ‘circus atmosphere’, ‘spurious science’, ‘belief in the magical properties of attenuated solutions’, ‘what seems to be an aberration’, ‘results that could not be explained by current theory’, ‘respectful disbelief of Nobel prizewinner Jean-Marie Lehn’, the ‘cavalier interpretation of results made by Benveniste’, ‘interpretations out of proportion with the facts’, ‘magic results’, ‘high-dilution experiments and much of homeopathy with their notions of alchemy’, ‘revolutionary nature of this finding’, ‘generally efficient physicochemical laws being broken’, ‘ throwing away our intellectual heritage’, ‘how James Bond could distinguish Martinis that have been shaken or stirred’, a ‘delusion about the interpretation of the data’, the ‘extraordinary claims made in the interpretation’, ‘Cheshire cat phenomenon’, ‘no basis for concluding that the chemical data accumulated over two centuries are in error’, the ‘circus atmosphere engendered by the publication of the original paper’, the ‘fact that it still takes a full teaspoon of sugar to sweeten our tea’,’existing scientific paradigms’, ‘throwing away the Law of Mass Action or Avogadro’s number’, ‘original research requiring a general science background sufficient to recognize nonsense’, ‘reports of unicorns needing to be checked with particular care’, ‘not believing that no-more existent molecules can leave an imprint in water’, ‘the first issue of New Approaches to Truly Unbelievable and Ridiculous Enigmas’, ‘speculating why water can remember something on some occasions and forget it on others’, ‘outlandish claims’, ‘not publishing papers dealing with nonsense theories’, ‘data grossly conflicting with vast amounts of earlier well-documented and easily replicated data’, ‘extraordinary claims’, ‘shattering the laws of chemistry’,’ divine intervention being probably about as likely’,’findings that contravene the physicochemical laws known to science’,’data that purport to contravene a couple of centuries of chemical data’, a ‘whole load of crap’,’1074 oceans like those of the Earth needed to contain only one molecule of the original substance’, the ‘usual rules of interactions in biology or in physical chemistry where the molecule is the basic vector of information’, the ‘failure of fundamental principles’, ‘defying all laws of physical chemistry and of biology’, ‘unbelievable results’, ‘observations without any objective basis’, one prominent scientist pointedly not reading Benveniste’s paper ‘because it would be a waste of his time’, ‘standard theory offering no explanation for such a result’ and ‘a priest stating during mass that water keeps the memory of God’.”
The anger and outrage these scientists are feeling as they are trying to come to terms with the cognitive dissonance generated by the Benveniste results is palatable. Gone are sweet logic and reason, and gone is the scientific method that says that evidence can never be dismissed on theoretical grounds. The gut feeling that such results are simply ‘unbelievable’, no matter what, dominates the response. The existing physical models are confused with eternal laws of nature, and their apparent inability to account for the results is taken as a personal insult. The church fathers who refused to look through Galilei’s telescope could hardly have been any more irrational than the highly educated scientists who produced these outbursts of scientific bigotry.
Other online references that might be of interest are:
(Article by original CSICOP co-founder Marcello Truzzi)
* The website “Suppressed Science” is no longer extant.