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

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.

Skeptical Inquirer 33:1

The January/February 2009 issue of Skeptical Inquirer (33:1) has been released, with an all-star cast presenting a themed issue on the topic of UFOs. As per usual, the website has a number of the articles available online, for free reading:

Full details at the SI website.

Randi's Wrong Again...

Legendary 'skeptic' James "The Amazing" Randi has recently been posting videos to YouTube, in which he gives his thoughts on certain topics. A couple of weeks ago, he discussed the "woo-woo" area of parapsychology:

I've remarked previously about Randi's verbal sleight-of-hand, and there's plenty in this particular vodcast. Considering that it has had over 10,000 views, it might be worth pointing out some of his best work.

First off, we are informed that there are just two types of parapsychologist:

One kind, goes through life constantly deceiving themselves, making excuses and rationalizations for failures, and yet turning out many books and papers on their work, always promising further progress - if only sufficient funding were to be provided! And that usually follows, because there are lots of wishful thinkers out there...with money.

The other kind of parapsychologist spends some time at it, then looks at the evidence more closely, and opts to take up another profession. Sterling examples of this reversal can be found in Dr Susan Blackmore, and Dr Chris French - UK scientists who saw the train wreck they could have been part of, but left the track in time to avoid the inevitable collision with the real world.

So, basically if a parapsychologist has not become a 'skeptic', then they are self-deceiving and seeking money. Simple. I do find it odd that Randi considers Dr Chris French to have taken up "another profession", considering he's currently working with Rupert Sheldrake on telephone telepathy research and recently published research into possible causes of haunted houses. He certainly may have modified his opinion, but he has not changed profession. And we've discussed Susan Blackmore's Damascus-road experience previously here on TDG.

Furthermore, I'd imagine a few parapsychologists would have choked on their coffee reading that requests for funding are usually met by wishful thinkers with money...

Randi goes on to illustrate the lack of positive results in parapsychology:

In fact, both Duke University and Stanford, in the USA, gave up their many years of involvement in parapsychology, simply because they had no positive results to support their continued involvement. And the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab, known as P.E.A.R, the 'Pear Lab', closed down operation just recently, after almost 30 years in business. And for the same reason

Randi is either uninformed on the issue, or being deceptive - he can choose either horn of that dilemma. Duke University's parapsychology lab certainly closed down decades ago, but not because of a lack of results. Joseph Rhine moved DU's parapsychology lab off-campus, and continues to this day as the Rhine Research Centre. Rhine's research reported positive results. Stanford University's interest in parapsychology was disrupted when the Stanford Research Institute separated from the University and became SRI International. SRI International was the nursery for the Stargate remote viewing project, of which statistician Jessica Utts concluded: "Using the standards applied to any other area of science, it is concluded that psychic functioning has been well-established. The statistical results of the studies examined are far beyond what is expected by chance...there is little benefit to continuing experiments designed to offer proof, since there is little more to be offered to anyone who does not accept the current collection of data." That's a little hard to reconcile with Randi's statement of "no positive results"...

Randi finishes by mentioning PEAR, claiming they closed for the same reason (that is, no positive results). That's a little at odds with the comments of PEAR founder Dr Robert Jahn:

For 28 years, we've done what we wanted to do, and there's no reason to stay and generate more of the same data. If people don't believe us after all the results we've produced, then they never will... It's time for a new era; for someone to figure out what the implications of our results are for human culture, for future study, and - if the findings are correct - what they say about our basic scientific attitude.

James Randi has a history of similar mis-statements of fact in regards to parapsychology - last year in a newsletter he referred to Dr Dean Radin's experiments in presentiment as "his latest distraction", after negative results in other experiments. Radin had in fact been investigating (and publishing positive results) on presentiment for 10 years. Additionally, Radin had reported positive results in his other areas of research. Again, either Randi has no idea of the scientific research being published by parapsychologists (in which case he has no authority to criticise it), or he is deliberately misleading readers/viewers.

And yet the 'defenders of science and truth' admire him so. Quite amusing really.

Previously on TDG:


Last Friday night magic duo Penn & Teller were the 'celebrity contestants' on game show "Don't Forget the Lyrics". Contestants on the show try to remember and sing the lyrics to various hit songs; each time they correctly do so, they win more money, with each step taking them closer to the 'million dollar song'. Celebrities play on behalf of their favourite charity. P&T's choice? The James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF)!

Though they teased skeptical fanbois by heading into six-figure heaven for a few moments, they crashed back to earth with an incorrect lyric to a Doors song (Jim's no doubt got a big smile on his face on the 'other side'), resigning the JREF to a 'paltry' $25,000 donation. Although that will surely come in handy, paying a good 14% of James Randi's wage for the coming year ($US175,000). Homeless children and starving babies be damned...there's a cranky old man who needs to misinform the public about the 'truth', at least according to his long-held prejudices. Unfortunately, P&T's winnings will only help feed and clothe one - there are thousands of them out there folks, in desperate need of funds to allow them too to stand up and annoy the crap out of us with patronising sermons. I say huzzah for Penn & Teller for bringing attention to this silent epidemic...

Derren Brown on Cold Reading

In his documentary series The Enemies of Reason (see the end of this post for video links), Richard Dawkins talked to hypnotist/magician Derren Brown about the skill of "cold reading" - techniques used by fraudulent mediums (and mentalists) to convince people that they know their personal details. A new DVD has been released of the 'uncut' interviews from the documentary, and has announced that the complete interview with Derren Brown is freely available on YouTube (almost an hour total length). I've posted part one underneath - you can watch the next five instalments by clicking on the links at the end of the video:

Unfortunately, it would seem that the uncut interview with Rupert Sheldrake is not part of the DVD - that might have made things a touch more interesting...

Previously on TDG:

Skeptical Inquirer 32:6

The final issue of Skeptical Inquirer for the year has been released (32:6), and as usual there's plenty of free sample articles from the latest mag available online to whet your appetite:

Full details of the new issue at the Skeptical Inquirer website.

Skeptologists Attack Ufologists

The skeptical superstar team pushing for their own (spectacularly ugly-named) reality TV series - 'The Skeptologists' - have gone out of their way this week to pick on ufology, in particular two researchers: Stanton Friedman and Chris Rutkowski (or maybe they just don't like Canadian residents?). 'Skeptoid' host Brian Dunning rushed into battle with his post "Stanton Friedman Doesn't Like Me". As Dunning points out in his own post though, Stan's probably got good reason not to like him, considering Dunning has previously labeled Stan (and continues to) “an obsessed UFO wacko."

Now, ufology has plenty of problems - there's no real 'group authority', and plenty of hucksters and deluded people. I'm not criticising them here, because basically they're hucksters and deluded people...whom most people can see right through. Skeptics on the other hand, take on a heavy burden in giving themselves that name - it means they're imposing themselves as guardians or gatekeepers to science and the collective body of human knowledge. As such, when they fail to uphold fairness, and fail to understand something when criticising it, they deserve every bit of blowback that they get. And let's be clear about this - Dunning's post is an ugly piece of personal vindictiveness. Beyond his name-calling, there's pettiness (in saying his podcast is 'kicking the ass' of the Paranormal Podcast) and innuendo (Stan is apparently more "concerned with his bank account than with reason"). I also find it amusing that Dunning tries to talk up how much Stan is earning from ufology (not much actually) in contrast to the fact that "reason doesn't pay" - while posting alongside Michael Shermer and Phil Plait!

Beyond that though, Dunning's main point was regarding his investigation of the Betty and Barney Hill case - in particular, Stanton Friedman's assertion that there were "40 flat-out false claims" made by Dunning in debunking the case. I'm not sure whether the number mentioned was hyperbole on Stan's part, but as we'll see below, there is no doubt that Dunning made some major errors (or got creative in his writing). I don't agree with Stan on a lot of things, including some parts of the Hill case, but he does know the material having dedicated much of his life to studying it. Challenging him on the evidence is no trivial matter - as Phil Klass once found out to his financial detriment. (I'll post Stan's response to Dunning's original investigation at the end of this update.) ... Read More »

Surveying Skepticism

I recently posted a story about "The Psychology of the Skeptic", which linked to reports from the Society for Psychical Research's recent study day 'Spotlight on the Skeptics'. Matt Colborn's excellent summary of the conference (which I posted as a multi-link to the Cosmic Citizen blog) is now available on the one page at the Skeptical Investigations website. Also now available is audio of Rupert Sheldrake's insightful lecture, which gave a full run-down on some of his own encounters with fundamentalist skeptics, as well as Rupert's own thoughts about the label.

Speaking of the skeptical label, at SkepticBlog Dr Steven Novella (well-known as a key member of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe podcast) has posted an entry which contemplates that very thing - he notes the negative connotation of the word, and goes so far as to make explicit that modern skeptics are *nothing of the kind*:

OK - we all know that the name “skeptic” is sub-optimal. Probably, if someone paid a great deal of money to a top-notch marketing team they would come up with something better. But we don’t always get to choose such things. Names take root and have cultural inertia. Attempts at imposing a new name on the modern skeptical movement have failed (cough…”brights”…cough!)... Rather than fight history, inertia, and etymology most of us have just decided to embrace it and make the best out of it.

... The modern skeptical movement has used the self-label of “skeptic” for decades to refer to what Carl Sagan called “scientific skepticism,” to distinguish it from philosophical skepticism or mere cynicism.

So here is my attempt at a reasonably concise definition of skeptic and skepticism - the brand of scientific skepticism we advocate as activist skeptics.

A skeptic is one who prefers beliefs and conclusions that are reliable and valid to ones that are comforting or convenient, and therefore rigorously and openly applies the methods of science and reason to all empirical claims, especially their own. A skeptic provisionally proportions acceptance of any claim to valid logic and a fair and thorough assessment of available evidence, and studies the pitfalls of human reason and the mechanisms of deception so as to avoid being deceived by others or themselves. Skepticism values method over any particular conclusion.

An interesting moment of redefinition by one of the leading skeptics - although I've no doubt there are areas of Novella's definition which could use a little work. (Personally, I don't find the idea that aliens are abducting people and putting probes up their butts too "comforting or convenient", but hey...maybe I'm too much of a small town boy).

There is no doubt in my mind (heh, see what I did there...) that the skeptical movement is gaining serious traction online, despite their protestations that the world is being swallowed by the irrationality monster - witness the growing audiences of the Skeptics Guide podcast, Bad Astronomy, Pharyngula etc. Mind you, there's very good reasons to be a skeptic (in the true sense of the word) - there's no shortage of stupidity and fraud out there - but I think the reason why so many *pseudo-skeptics* are being embraced (e.g. Randi) is because they trade on intellectual superiority ("hey, if you're interested in that you must be a goofy anti-science guy") - and there's plenty of fragile egos out there wanting to join the 'smart club'. Me, I'll just continue to be unfashionable and look into strange and weird things, though with plenty of caution.

Psychology of the Skeptic

Robert McLuhan (of Paranormalia) recently gave a talk at a Society for Psychical Research study day devoted to 'the skeptics'. He has posted the text of his talk, "The Psychology of the Skeptic", to his blog - I highly recommend you take the time to read it through, it's an excellent piece. Robert points out that while there is usually much talk of the dysfunctional psychology of a 'believer' in the paranormal, not as much attention is given to the psychology of the skeptic:

[S]kepticism per se is absolutely rational. Indeed, for many people in our secular-leaning society, belief in such things as ESP is a deviation from the social norm. The believer is an odd breed who is willing to believe in things that aren't there, clearly prey to delusions and wishful thinking, unable to think critically, and so on. It's implicit in the titles of the debunking books: The Psychology of the Psychic, The Psychology of the Occult, The Psychology of Anomalous Experience, Why People Believe Weird Things.

But the intensity of dogmatism of many of the critics, their violent responses and seeming inability to connect with our reasoning, makes us suspect that there is such a thing as a skeptical psychology. It's not just the believer who is special - there's an awful lot going in skeptics' heads as well. Where skeptics see their automatic dismissal of paranormal claims, even when made by serious scientists, as a necessary and healthy reaction, we often see it as dogmatic, intolerant, and religious in its intensity, indicating a deep emotional commitment to the mechanist worldview. Some even see it as a rerun of the Reformation in a secular setting - with dissenters beating at the gates of the establishment, and embattled scientists defending orthodoxy against their heresies.

Strictly speaking, this isn't skepticism at all, at least in its original sense. Where skepsis, in the original Greek, means rational doubt and probing, the word skeptic has increasingly come to mean defensive and doctrinaire, and a skeptic as someone who identifies with a position and defends it to the bitter end, often striving to downplay, misrepresent or simply ignore the evidence. This is by not necessarily a fair or universal definition, but it's nevertheless one that is increasingly made.

Robert's talk covers some interesting ground, including how a number of skeptics seem to have had a Damascus-like conversion to skepticism after one of their beliefs was refuted - what he refers to as the "experience, of being abruptly disabused of a belief, and it has had a powerful impact". He goes on to quote David Leiter as to the effect this shock has:

Such scientifically inclined, but psychologically scarred people tend to join Skeptics' organizations much as one might join any other support group, say, Alcoholics Anonymous. There they find comfort, consolation, and support amongst their own kind. Anyone who has spent much time engaging members of Skeptics' organizations knows about their strong inclination toward ridicule and ad hominem criticism of those with differing viewpoints.

I often criticise the modern skeptical movement here on TDG. Some probably mistake this as a signal that I "believe" in the paranormal and odd claims, or that I support every claim made out there. I don't - there's *a lot* of absolute rubbish out there - but I do enjoy reading and researching them, even if to see how a certain belief is being propagated...and it's important to note the difference. There is *a lot* I could criticise about the paranormal genre (and readers will know that I do), but most of it comes back to "belief". As Robert Anton Wilson once wrote, "Belief is the death of intelligence."

The modern skeptical movement bugs me for the simple fact that they should know better. Their reason for being is supposed to be critical thinking, and yet it has become quite obvious that it is as much a belief system to many 'adherents', as those that they criticise regularly.

Other speakers included Rupert Sheldrake, Guy Lyon Playfair, and Professor Chris French was also invited to reply to the talks from a skeptical point of view. Coverage of the event by the Cosmic Citizen blog said that Chris French "pointed out that many of the criticisms of extreme skepticism (inflexibility, selective presentation of facts, lack of interest in alternative points of veiw, etc.) could also be levelled at extreme 'Believers' in the paranormal." I think this is a fair observation. However, I also think it's worth pointing out that the "extreme skepticism" seems to take the lead in the authoritative skeptical organisations (e.g. Randi, CSICOP), whereas leading parapsychologists do not engage in such extreme behaviour.

Full coverage of the event at Cosmic Citizen can be read below:

All excellent and thought-provoking reading.

Why We...'Believe'

Ugh. Three pages of ugh in fact, and it wasn't until the final paragraph that I thought it started being more balanced...but that only lasted a sentence, and then there was the "good fight" thing. I've tried writing a commentary about it, but it's going to end up book length - so I leave it to anybody else that wants to comment.

My comment, in a nutshell - "belief" isn't something restricted to the supernatural...