Here you'll find the latest news from the nay-sayers, telling you what you don't understand, for the good of rationalism and the physical universe

Capt Disillusion Heads to Randi HQ

Captain Disillusion returns, attempting to debunk YouTube's famous "pantry ghost". A tough case though, and he needs help from a higher power...James Randi.

With skeptics like this, I might even begin liking them. The Charles Darwin line is gold, I almost sprayed coffee over my keyboard (and the Contact-spoof well done as well)...

Skeptical Foolery

Skeptoid host Brian Dunning has written on SkepticBlog about a recent surreal experience he had with Michael Shermer, when both were invited to be the skeptics on a new show supposedly about testing psychics for a $50,000 prize.

The third psychic was, unfortunately, not a psychic at all, but a young comedian who used to have a show on the BBC, and now appears to be trying to make a name for himself with a new character who is a wannabe nemesis of skeptics. He’s going to find this an uphill battle, as he’s neither clever, funny, particularly talented in any apparent way, nor does he seem to know much about psychics or criticism of psychics.

He goes by the moniker “Shirley”, and looks like a televangelist in a gaudy white suit with colored piping, and either the world’s worst hair or a gauche orange wig, I couldn’t quite tell which. When it was his turn to come out, Shirley came up to me, took his seat, refused to return my friendly greeting, and launched into what he seemed to think was a clever attempt to “get into my head” - insulting my parents, my wife, and “revealing” to all my terrible guilt at how I’ve treated people. Essentially, his routine was to ignore the reason [that I believed] he was supposed to be there, and try to establish himself as - well, I can’t even think what. He refused to participate in the arranged tests, instead throwing tantrums about each, constantly demanding that he be paid his $50,000.

Michael Shermer tweeted some of the later developments during the day, including this medium dragging a bodybag onto the set, claiming it to contain the body of Lee Majors.

Seems that Shermer and Dunning were lured into being (unaware) participants in the taping of a new Shirley Ghostman feature. Ghostman is the creation of Marc Wootton, a British comedian/actor doing Sacha Baron Cohen Borat-like joke interviews and interactions, with the Ghostman character being a send-up of star mediums. Wootton did something similar with British skeptics a while back - here's a segment featuring UK skeptic Chris French:

Personally I don't get much enjoyment out of the Ghostman prank interviews (and I think Chris French came out of the above interaction looking very good). I'm not a huge fan of Dunning or Shermer, but I feel for them a bit in this instance, spending a day doing some genuine work to find out it's all a sham - though going by both their accounts, I'm not too sure of their ability to spot a joke. At least they got paid for their day (who says skepticism doesn't pay?).

And you can be sure skeptics wouldn't engage in this sort of low-level pranking. Oops...very next post on SkepticBlog is from Mark Edward, urging skeptics to engage in "Ambush Skepticism":

Are your gloves off yet? Now how about moving on from Guerrilla Skepticism to more targeted Ambush Skepticism? We certainly have plenty of whack-jobs out there to choose from. These days, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel. Here’s some ideas and please don’t take them too seriously, I’m merely suggesting possibilities. If you do any of these performance pieces, please get them on camera.

No shortage of irony over there at the moment...

Silencing Sciencing?

Quite a storm of controversy in the U.K. at the moment regarding the decision in a libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against science writer (and oft-times 'media skeptic') Simon Singh. Earlier this month the British High Court found in favour of the BCA, based mainly on the meaning of the word "bogus" in the following passage written by Singh:

"The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments."

The judge ruled that in using the word "bogus", Singh was saying that the BCA were being intentionally dishonest.

Singh is going to appeal the case, although his chances do not look good. But apart from his own challenge, the charity 'Sense About Science' has also started a campaign of its own, supported by individuals such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Fry, Brian Cox and a host of others (including the Bad Astronomer). Their campaign is to "Keep Libel Laws Out of Science", contending that British laws stifle the "freedom to criticise and question in strong terms and without malice", which are "the cornerstone of scientific argument and debate".

I've got two opinions on this. Firstly, libel laws based on ambiguous definitions suck - I fully support Singh in his appeal. I have a strong dislike of of anything but essential use of libel laws, and as a writer and publisher I fully understand the difficulties in screening all of your text for every tiny definition and nuance. I also enjoy healthy debate and dislike those that resort to petty rebuttals to the larger topic at hand.

On the other hand, there's this growing meme out there that this particular decision means libel laws stifle scientific debate. But to me, it seems that in this case, Singh simply made a really bad choice of wording - the definitions of bogus that I've looked up seem to suggest what the judge says (however petty it might be for the BCA to take issue with it). The UK's libel laws certainly enable it, but I think what needs to be acknowledged is that you can “Keep the Libel Laws Out of Science” simply by presenting the science, rather than saying things like “happily promotes bogus treatments”. Singh is British, he’s a high-profile media skeptic - he should have had a pretty good understanding of the law in this area before writing a column accusing someone of bogus medicine. There needs to be a little ownership here of a mistake made (though certainly continued push for reform of the laws), and acknowledgement that libel laws can’t be used against you if you’re just presenting solid science.

My additional query on that point would be, if Singh had the opportunity to withdraw the remark (leaving the science intact) before legal action was taken, why didn't he? Although in his defence, at that stage he may not have been aware that the "bogus" section would end up the primary point, and so felt sure enough of his remarks to stand behind them.

All in all though, a rather nasty affair. Hopefully the BCA acts honourably and offers some sort of settlement to Singh to retract the overly-construed "bogus" word - although, would Singh accept the settlement, or would he try for a decisive victory? Coming fresh on the heels of Ben Goldacre's own brush with libel cases, science writers in the UK might feel a beachhead needs to be created.

Imagine poor Randi if he lived in the UK...

Update: Came across Simon Singh's personal account of the whole affair - essential reading.

Million Dollar Moments

For those interested, I've contributed a few comments in an ongoing discussion at Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy website regarding Randi's Million Dollar Challenge. On Tuesday Phil gave an update on the Patricia Putt test (mentioned here on TDG last week), in particular her post-failure 'rationalising' of what went wrong. One of the commenters (#24) mentioned my 2008 article "The Myth of the Million Dollar Challenge", which provoked a few predictable responses (e.g. "Holy crap, Occam, that link is an amazing source of stupidity!"). As such, I felt it my duty to discuss the MDC a little further (starting at #38). Some of the discussion is worth reading, other parts bring the usual skeptic hilarity to the table, but it's all fairly entertaining and genial.

It bears mentioning that my participation in these discussions is not because I consider the modern skeptical movement as an 'enemy' to be combated. I confront them on a few issues primarily because they're intelligent enough that they should know better (especially given their self-proclaimed critical thinking skills).

Also, to be clear, I'm not asking for participation - just passing on the link for those interested. In case you get tempted, it pays to visit this link first...


First there was the woo, and the woo was everywhere. Then came the skeptics, forming themselves in the tribe of CSICOP, dismembering the woo and feasting on its remains. But the skeptics became drunk on their power, and began making stupid accusations and inane remarks. And thus SCEPCOP was born, to police the police. Or something like that...

The Paranormal is one of the most exciting frontiers today. Research into Consciousness, Quantum Physics and Psychic Phenomena, etc. explores venues that may unlock the mysteries of the universe and gateways to other dimensions or levels of reality. Thus it provides us hope, inspiration, and meaning for our existence, as well as expanding our minds into a larger picture of reality.

However, there are organized group of scoffers masquerading under the term "skeptics" who deny, ridicule and suppress anything progressive that challenges the static views of the establishment. They are debunkers who tend to distort, dismiss and obfuscate any phenomenon that challenges a conventional materialistic view of reality. In truth, they are not true skeptics engaging in open inquiry, but selective debunkers with an agenda to defend the establishment. That's why we call them "pseudo-skeptics". A "true skeptic" engages in open inquiry and doubt toward toward all views and belief systems, including their own and those of the establishment. But these "pseudo-skeptics" never question the views of the establishment, materialistic science or anything presented as "official".

...So now, it's our turn to form a group to counter them and expose them for what they are. Enter SCEPCOP, which is a counter to CSICOP (though they recently changed their name to CSI). As CSICOP was formed to "police the claims of psi", SCEPCOP now in turn acts to "police the cynicism of pseudo-skeptics". We will debunk all their arguments, revealing their fallacies, inconsistencies, false dogmas posing as "rules of logic" and double standards, showing that they are not objective truth seekers, but biased selective debunkers defending establishment views. Their minds were already made up from the beginning, and their actions and methodology expose them for what they are.

Regular readers will know that I'm all for dissecting the supposedly 'authoritative' views of skeptics. So it's good to see a site out there which puts the focus squarely on this issue (although the Skeptical Investigations website already does a pretty good job of it). The thought of a 'committee' or group taking on the role of "police" to the skeptics does make me cringe a little though...half the problem with CSI(COP) and the like, is the weakness of group-think and shunning of apostate individuals. Additionally, I take time to argue certain issues as carefully and objectively as possible, so I certainly don't want anybody talking 'on behalf' of me.

Apart from those caveats, I'm looking forward to seeing what comes from this venture.

Randi's Million Dollar Challenge Fail

On May 6th, self-proclaimed psychic Patricia Putt was put to the test by Professors Richard Wiseman and Christopher French in the UK, on behalf of the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF). The testing by these two highly regarded academics was a preliminary 'screening' for an attempt at James Randi's 'Million Dollar Challenge':

A few months ago the JREF asked if Chris French (Goldsmith University) and I would carry out an initial test of a medium named Patricia Putt. We went back and forth about the protocol, and eventually settled on an experimental design. Basically, Patricia would carry out readings for 10 strangers, and then all of the participants would be presented with all 10 readings and have to select the one that best described them. To cut down on possible sensory cues, the strangers were not allowed to interact with Patricia, and asked to wear a graduation gown and facial mask.

...Patricia was a joy to work with, and carried out the readings as promised. I sat in the room with Patricia as she wrote her readings and sent the occasional twitter update.

None of the participants were able to correctly identify their reading, and so the results do not support Patricia’s claim.

To be clear on that result: Putt got 0 out of 10 correct. That's a pretty comprehensive fail. You can find the protocol for the experiment at the JREF Forum. Chris French also has written up his account of the day for the UK's Guardian.

This looks to have been a good solid test of what Putt claimed to be able to do - and if anything, by allowing speaking I think it probably favoured Putt a little in terms of allowing some possible sensory leakage. There are only two things that concern me. Firstly, there is no mention of the stance of the volunteers. I emailed Chris French asking whether any survey was done of their thoughts on paranormal phenomena, he told me there was not. This seems odd to me. What if all the volunteers were of a skeptical nature? Is it possible that they could intentionally pick the description that does not indicate them? While personally I think this is stretching things (especially with a zero out of ten result), it is theoretically a nasty flaw. With the final selection of reading by volunteers being blind, the sensible thing to me would be to have supporters/believers of paranormal phenomena involved, to put this possibility to bed.

The more important concern is over the setting of five selections out of ten as constituting the benchmark for success. While a casual glance might suggest that's 1 in 2 odds, it isn't. If Putt had achieved that benchmark, she would be doing so at odds against chance of over 600 to 1. Remember, this is just the preliminary test, in order to see whether she's worthy of going for the million dollars. Given Putt's 0 out of 10 result, in this particular case it's all academic - but still worthy of making a point of, given the reputation the million dollar challenge has.

I asked Chris French why the benchmark for "success" was set at 5 out of 10; he told me that "this was set by JREF and agreed to by Mrs Putt," before he got involved in the testing. This is consistent with previous 'preliminary' tests regarding the Million Dollar Challenge, with odds against chance of 1000 to 1 generally mentioned as being required for the preliminary, rising to a million to one for the true 'Million Dollar' test. As I've mentioned previously, those odds are probably valid given the amount of money Randi needs to protect against being won by a chance event. It does not, however, give any sort of 'scientific' test of whether someone has exhibited an anomalous sensory power, or at least done well enough to warrant further testing. See the Demkina case for an example of someone doing quite well but 'failing'.

Having said that, it's probably a valid argument that if you're going to sell your services as a talented psychic, you should be able to get five things out of ten correct, despite the odds. Otherwise, what value is this power - what sort of trust can we put in anything said, even if some of it is through some genuine psychic channel?

The other thing worth noting is that Patricia Putt agreed to setting 5 out of 10 as the level required for success. Hopefully she was aware (or made aware) of the odds she was going up against. But she took on the challenge, with full knowledge of the restrictions and benchmarks for success, so she has made her own bed.

The pointy end of the stick is though: what does Randi's Million Dollar Challenge offer us? This test has shown that one 'psychic', Patricia Putt, failed to show evidence for paranormal powers, on this one particular day. Nothing more can be claimed than that, all else is inference. It also has shown that even if something surprising happened, and a 'psychic' achieved results against odds of 500 to 1, it would be labeled a failure under this protocol. That any intelligent 'psychic' - whether genuine or fraudulent - would avoid putting themselves in that position is more than understandable. As such, it could well be argued that the pool of Million Dollar applicants might be composed of less than capable individuals. (Given that Putt has been put to the test previously by the BBC, with not-so-impressive results, this particular test result isn't that surprising).

So we basically have a testing system which offers no scientifically useful benchmarks, investigating mostly self-deluded individuals, which so far has proved that on that particular day, nothing exceptionally out of the normal has happened. In short, I fail to see why the Million Dollar Challenge is held in such high regard. Let's hope that - contra to what the Bad Astronomer says - the Million Dollar Challenge is *not* the "coolest thing" the JREF does.

The one thing that it does show is that you shouldn't explicitly trust the results of anybody relying on 'psychic' ability. That's the message that skeptics would do well to get across to the public, rather than large-scale dismissals of psychic abilities based on the continued retention of the million dollar prize.

For more information on this topic, see my previous article "The Myth of James Randi's Million Dollar Challenge". Your thoughts?

Perusing a Skeptical Handbook

Regular readers will know that, despite the fun we have covering weird topics here on TDG, I do recommend a healthy dose of skepticism before accepting any of it at face value (and not just here...even prominent skeptics can be eager to believe in photoshopped UFO photos Jesus pareidolia when it suits). I also take issue with 'false' skepticism, when people take on that mantle mainly to defend their own belief system. So this one is worth checking out for multiple reasons: a new 'handbook' for skeptics titled What Do I Do Next? (600KB PDF download, a condensed HTML version is also available). Daniel Loxton of Skeptic magazine put together a list of 100 suggestions for engaging in 'skeptical activism' and invited prominent skeptics to comment on them. He received numerous replies from people such as Ben Radford, Eugenie Scott, Jeff Wagg and Jay Novella.

I'm traveling at the moment, so can't go into too much detail with my own thoughts, but there's some interesting points in there that might be worth discussing if you want to have at it in the comments. For example, I find some things such as the call to donate to the JREF and other organisations almost embarrassing. Not because I disagree with it in principal - I know exactly how it feels to bust your butt with no financial resources at your disposal. But when you have guys like James Randi earning at least $170,000 a year for acting like a belligerent ass, how can anyone seriously ask hard-working folk on an average wage to donate to that? Ditto for CSI and other organisations that already wield considerable influence.

I also found the call to respect religion rather odd, given the usual attack lines of skeptical groups. I'm not sure where one draws the line between making fun of someone that believes that beings from Zeta Reticuli visited them in their bedroom last week, and respecting another person that believes that some Jewish guy resurrected from the dead 2000 years ago and in doing so absolved the entire world population of its sins. I would imagine this edict is not a consensus view in skeptical circles, although there was little debate about it in this booklet. I guess it ties in to the suggestion to make allies - although again, if that was the case then skeptical groups could make great steps by engaging with the 'real' researchers of paranormal claims out there, rather than making fun of them and their topics.

I must be knocking down a straw man there though - according to #21, "the goal of skeptical investigation "isn't to cast rhetorical doubt on paranormal claims, but to discover what's true." I'm not sure how that can be reconciled with the wholesale dismissal of those claims elsewhere in the book without investigation, but it certainly sounds great in theory. In fact, there's a lot to like in the suggestions made regarding working with people and being polite. I have my doubts about whether it will be embraced though, given my past experience with 'skeptics', and the attitude of many of the current leaders of the field - but let's leave my cynicism to the side and hope for the best.

Feel free to praise the good points, and offer criticism of the bad points, in the comments.

UFO Skeptics Face Prosecution

In January and February residents of Morristown, New Jersey, spotted some strange lights in the sky. I don't remember seeing too much about it here on TDG, although I managed to track an item down in one news briefs post: "Genuine UFOs over the Garden State, or just road flares attached to helium balloons? Watch the video and decide."

Well, it turns out that the UFOs were in fact...flares attached to helium balloons. On April 1, two New Jersey 'skeptics' - Chris Russo and Joe Rudy - came forward in an article for the eSkeptic newsletter claiming to have staged a hoax to test people's gullibility.

[W]e set out on a mission to help people think rationally and question the credibility of so-called UFO “professionals.” We brainstormed the idea of producing a spaceship hoax to fool people, bring the charlatans out of the woodwork to drum up controversy, and then expose it as nothing more than a prank to show everyone how unreliable eyewitness accounts are, along with investigators of UFOs.

The hoax garnered the attention of local press and MUFON (although that was at least partially because the hoaxers contacted them), but hit paydirt when the History Channel's UFO Hunters devoted an episode to the sightings:

The icing on the cake came when the popular History Channel show UFO Hunters featured the Morristown UFO as their main story one week. Bill Birnes, the lead investigator of the show and the publisher of UFO Magazine, declared definitively that the Morristown UFO could not have been flares or Chinese lanterns.

...This begs an important question: are UFO investigators simply charlatans looking to make a quick buck off human gullibility, or are they alarmists using bad science to back up their biased opinions that extraterrestrial life is routinely visiting our planet? Either way, are these people deserving of their own shows on major cable networks? If a respected UFO investigator can be easily manipulated and dead wrong on one UFO case, is it possible he’s wrong on most (or all) of them? ...

Does this bring into question the validity of every other UFO case? We believe it does.

I'd have to say that there is a pretty lazy generalisation about "UFO investigators" here. I don't write off stem cell research just because Woo Suk Hwang admitted to fraud. Like any other area of investigation, cases (and investigators) should be treated on an individual basis. It's worth noting that these sightings attracted *zero* interest on perhaps the premiere public email list for ufology, UFO Updates.

However, the skeptical duo are right to say that there should be a question over the validity of all UFO cases (though it's not because of their hoax). This is an area filled with speculation, hoaxing and misidentifications. They are certainly right, therefore, in calling on people to be more skeptical about lights in the sky, and media reporting about them. Hopefully people treat the 'lights in the sky' cases of UFO with a bit more skepticism in future, considering this hoax case, and last year's "Chinese Lantern" invasion in the UK. Conversely though, it would be nice if skeptics acknowledged that UFO sightings go beyond simple specks of light in the sky.

There's an interesting twist in the tale though. The Morris County prosecutor has now charged the skeptical hoaxsters with disorderly conduct. Actually, I'm surprised the pair came forward taking responsibility, considering that it seemed quite clear that charges were likely, given this story from mid-February which discusses the concerns of local air traffic authorities:

Capt. Jeff Paul, a spokesman for Morris County Prosecutor Robert A. Bianchi, said on Wednesday that federal authorities have expressed concern that the objects — which could be flares attached to balloons — might be a threat to flights on their final approach to Newark Liberty International Airport.

“The Federal Aviation Administration advised us that they would issue an advisory to aircraft in the area,” Paul said in a prepared statement.

...Morristown Police previously said the lights appeared to be a hoax, road flares attached to helium balloons. The lights were swaying, police said, and observers at Morristown Airport saw what appeared to be balloons.

Either these guys are very honest, or they're a little dumb. Or maybe they couldn't resist the reveal - as I've said before, in my opinion a large part of modern skepticism is about boosting the intellectual ego.

Interesting to note also that although some skeptics loved the prank, other prominent skepticks such as Ben Radford worried about how this might affect public perception of the skeptical movement ("Should skeptics hoax the public, or is that a breach of ethics that will ultmately harm the skeptical position?"). Others also worried about setting flares loose without precautions against them possibly starting fires.

'Hoaxing as education' is not a new phenomena in skepticism, and the ethics of it have been debated before. Randi has the dubious honour of being at the forefront of such pranks, with Project Alpha and the 'Carlos' tour. And if we take this recent SkepticBlog entry at face value, prominent skeptics are now encouraging a return to such tricks.

Coming back to the idea that this event calls into doubt the whole field of ufology, it is also worth noting that 'real' UFO investigators are more than aware that the hoax hypothesis should come into serious consideration when looking into a sighting. Canadian UFO investigator Chris Rutkowski pointed this out on his blog yesterday:

Actually, this doesn’t do much other than show how people’s perceptions can be affected by their beliefs, and how all UFO sighting reports have to be scrutinized carefully so as to rule out hoaxes.

That’s exactly what serious ufologists have been saying for, oh… about 50 years.

And as for UFO hoaxing, that's been done too, back in the misty depths of time (in somewhat of a scientific manner too).

I'm sure many 'UFO believers' out there are having a bit of a giggle, or cheering, about these skeptics being charged by prosecutors. I'm not one of them. I don't really agree with what they did, but I can appreciate what they were trying to do (excepting any feeding of their intellectual ego). Anybody laughing at these guys should ask themselves why they are doing so, because it might reveal a bit about any 'beliefs' they might have.

Anyhow, the whole hoax was carefully documented on video and posted on the 'net. So if you want to check it out, I've embedded the first instalment below; parts two and three are here and here respectively.

On a final note, let's not label this the "Great UFO hoax of 2009" as a Newsweek blog did. It garnered hardly any attention, apart from one UFO show primarily aiming at entertainment - if you'll pardon the analogy, it didn't even register as a blip on the radar.

Previously on TDG:

Daily Grail on Skeptiko

I get quite a few requests for interviews, which I usually turn down - because (a) I'm pretty boring, and (b) I'm pretty boring. However, when Alex Tsakiris of the Skeptiko podcast contacted me about having a chat, I decided to make an exception. Alex's interviews always evolve into interesting discussions, and he'd doing some excellent work with his own research initiatives into mediumship and other areas of parapsychology. Plenty of topics to sink our proverbial teeth into.

So, if you can bear my Australian drawl, here's my Skeptiko interview, hosted by Alex Tsakiris. The discussion revolves around ideas at the edge, and the 'new skepticism' - it's around half an hour in length. Feel free to post any thoughts here, or in the Skeptiko section at the forums.