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

Shermer's Baloney Detection Kit

The Richard Dawkins Foundation has combined with high-profile skeptic Michael Shermer to do a video presentation of "The Baloney Detection Kit":

It's a handy little tutorial on some basic critical thinking, though being filled with the usual Shermerisms about UFOs and Bigfoot it gets to be a bit of a smiley smug-fest after a while. So you can make it fun by applying the Detection Kit to Shermer himself. Here, let me get you started:

a) Reliability of the Source: Are the errors all in one direction, "slanting towards a particular belief"?

  • Shermer tells USA Today that Rupert Sheldrake's psi observations "don't require a theory and are perfectly explicable by normal means". When pushed on the details of his rebuttal, Shermer admits he hasn't even seen the book.
  • Shermer later misrepresents Sheldrake's research in his 'Skeptic' column in Scientific American.
  • Shermer cites Pim van Lommel's positive NDE study, published in The Lancet, to show that NDEs are obviously delusions.
  • Shermer says those promoting 'quantum consciousness' theories suffer from "physics envy". Including such pseudoscientists as John Eccles and Roger Penrose...
  • In his August 2004 Scientific American column, Shermer attacked respected physicist Freeman Dyson over his comments that paranormal phenomena may actually exist, wrongly saying that the scientific evidence is "unequivocal" in dismissing psi.

Kinda makes us suspicious, with all that "picking and choosing" of data. I leave the rest of the analysis to you...

Mr Deity and the Virgin

Taking a knife of gentle humour and cutting deep into some of the craziness of religious literalism:

Because sometimes deities should just not get involved...

Unreasonable Reason

I find the rise of 'militant atheism' a rather fascinating development, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett directing their intellectual strength towards the abolition of religion and the promotion of science and reason in its place. My personal feeling is that - like modern skepticism - the militant atheists don't realise that they can't win 'the war' when they antagonise more people than they win over. As a case in point, I find myself more interested in rebutting the points of militant skeptics and atheists, even though I am probably closest aligned philosophically with them rather than 'believers' (whether in God, or UFOs etc).

Anyone that similarly enjoys the debate over science and religion should definitely check out this email discussion between Sam Harris and writer Philip Ball. The debate began when Ball wrote a column in Nature about Harris's "Reason Project" (titled "How Much Reason Do You Want?"). Harris responded (rather aggressively I thought, given the mild comments in the article) by "hurling" Ball into the Reason Project 'Hall of Shame'. Ball replied in kind with a blog entry, "Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Them Militant", which finally inspired the lengthy email dialogue.

It's all worth reading because there are numerous good points made by both Harris and Ball, although you also get a feel for how the 'champions of reason' are going to struggle winning over the public, when they act aggressively even to someone with Ball's (rather similar) point of view. Ball touches on what may be the root of the problem in his final email:

One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point. My sense is that you cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from your own, so that if they insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid.

Which is very much the major problem with religious fundamentalists - that they consider other points of view as untenable. Lots of great points in the whole discussion, too many to quote here - so go read it if you have the time.

On a sidenote, it was rather amusing to see Harris bring up Rupert Sheldrake's name in the debate, when attacking Nature:

If ever there were a place to call a spade a “spade,” it is in the pages of the world’s most authoritative scientific publication. Let me remind you that the physiologist Rupert Sheldrake had his scientific career neatly decapitated, in a single stroke, by a Nature editorial. Did his vaguely “woolly” thesis about “morphogenetic fields” deserve at least a ride in a tumbrel? Perhaps. Was his book, 'A New Science of Life', as flagrantly unscientific as Francis Collins’, 'The Language of God?' Not by a long shot.

Regular readers will know that Rupert is often the arch-nemesis of the militant skeptics - and has recently had a run-in with Harris's co-Reason Projector Richard Dawkins - so I'm not sure how long it will be before Harris is pulled aside and talked to about his 'unreasonable' interest in fringe/psi research...

Previously on TDG:

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?