Monthly Archives: February 2012

Religion wrong, science right

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”  – Bertrand Russell.

Bertrand RussellAn article on the BBC website here reminded me of an encounter I had with a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses many years ago. It began with the usual knock on the door just as we were about to have lunch (I don’t know how these buggers manage to do it; every time I’m about to eat – knock, knock, knock. It gets pretty annoying).

Anyway, there they were – two well-meaning souls who were there, they said, to give me “the good news.” Cobblers. Good news would be something like, “We know we’re a pain in the arse, so we’ve decided never to knock on your door again.”

This particular encounter sticks in my memory, however, because I did take some time to chat to them (we must have been having a salad that day, I guess, so I can’t have been worried about a hot lunch that would go cold). And most memorably, there was a claim they made on the basis of “revealed knowledge” now proven to be utter nonsense.

For some reason, the conversation had turned to the existence of life itself. You won’t be surprised to know that the JW standpoint is that of creationism, and a complete denial of evolution. Even though these people seem to accept that some form of micro evolution goes on – dogs, for instance, can breed different varieties but they’re still dogs – they deny the reality of evolution itself. Not for them the boring and irrelevant stuff like masses of scientific evidence, including converging evidence from various scientific disciplines like genetics, geology, palaeontology, cosmology, etc. For them, if the Bible says something it must be true, and if it is not in the Bible, it must be false.

When I stated my contention that there is very likely to be life elsewhere in the universe – indeed the likelihood that life might well be ubiquitous, I was met with the sort of condescending smugness that only a religious fundamentalist can muster. “In fact,” I was informed, “there is no life anywhere else in the universe; the only place it exists is here on Earth.”

It goes without saying, of course, that the basis for that claim is in the Bible itself – not because the Bible asserts that this is the only inhabited planet, but that the Bible does not say specifically that there is life anywhere else. If the Bible doesn’t say it, then it ain’t true. Full stop. And that means, literally, a full stop to all further inquiry. Which sort of explains why religion and science can never be compatible, I think.

But the logic of the believer can be quite remarkable; never quite coinciding with real logic, their argument went like this:

“Scientists/astronomers have failed to find planets around any stars they have looked at. Therefore, there are no planets anywhere else in the universe. Ergo, there is also no life anywhere else in the universe.”

That seems like bad thinking to me. My own argument went like this:

The laws of physics apply all over the universe. Therefore it is likely that the same laws of physics allow for the formation of planets around stars, and ultimately the high likelihood that there is life elsewhere, including intelligent life. I also suggested that as science and technology advanced we would see the development of ever more sophisticated telescopes and instrumentation that would discover other planets and eventually other civilisations.

Unlike the JW’s (and all other religious fundies), I was not claiming certainty, but it was rather satisfying a few months later when the discovery and confirmation of the first extra-solar planet was announced.

Obviously, we do not, yet, have confirmation that there is life (sentient or otherwise) anywhere else. But that prospect is very real. From my speculation that life elsewhere is possible due to what we know about the physical universe, it does not, of course, follow that life must exist in other parts of the cosmos. However, the discovery of what is being called a “water world” surely increases the probability that we are not alone. Although this new planet appears to be far too hot to allow for life as we know it, the fact that water exists on another world is promising news that makes it more and more likely that the discovery of life on other planets is a realistic hope. More information can be found at Phil Plait’s blog.

I think it’s quite sad (as well as annoying) that those who know the least about science (and logic) should be the most vocal in its condemnation. We live in very exciting times, and knowledge is increasing at a phenomenal rate thanks to science, but despite the determination of the religious to take us back to the middle ages. In the face of so much wilful ignorance, the struggle to maintain the values of the Enlightenment is going to go on for a long time yet.

I sort of wish that those two JWs who interrupted my lunch that day would turn up again, though, just so I could ask them one question: “Well?”

The danger of relying on religion as a means of “knowing” should be quite clear. When you open a Bible, you have to close your mind.

Building Monuments–Aliens Not Necessary

It’s a common theme within the UFO movement to assert that the pyramids and other huge monuments around the world could not have been built by mere mortals. The Great Pyramid in Egypt, especially, was a huge undertaking. According to the UFO people, however, mankind was a bit too dim to manage the task. They didn’t have heavy construction machinery, for a start, and even if they did, it is claimed, they still wouldn’t have been able to do it. And even nowadays, it is said, huge monuments would be beyond our capability.

It seems to me, though, that belittling our ancestors’ abilities is lazy thinking – indeed, bad thinking. Those people were just as clever as anyone today, even though they had not yet progressed to the science and technology that we enjoy now. Were aliens from outer space really necessary to have around when various huge structures were built thousands of years ago? No, not really. Here’s a video of someone building his own version of Stonehenge – on his own and without heavy machinery:

Building Monuments


That’s just amazing. And it does away with the need for aliens: humans are quite capable of doing clever things.

Argument to Ignorance For Dummies

If there is one natural talent – a gift, even – that all humans possess, it is a natural talent to be irrational. It seems to be innate, in the same way that birds build their nests without training. And when people are arguing their case, in whatever scenario, they all manage to say the same wrong things. It’s as if everyone has been on a training course in stupidity.

The most common mistake I seem to come across is what is called “the argument to ignorance” or more formally, “argumentum ad ignorantiam.” Everyone uses it automatically when they are asked to prove the nonsense claim they are making. It goes like this:

Paranormal “expert”: “Spirit possession real.”

Skeptic: “Can you prove that spirit possession real?”

Paranormal “expert”: “ I’ll just throw the question back to you: can you prove that it is not?”

Now hang on a minute. When someone makes a claim, especially a very extraordinary claim like spirit possession, for which there is absolutely no confirmable evidence, the onus is upon the person making the claim to prove it. Why should that onus suddenly be put upon the person who is asking for evidence?

The basis of this fallacy is the claim – or more usually the implication – that because something cannot be proven false then it should be assumed to be true. And conversely that because a claim cannot be proven to be true then it should be assumed to be false. It is a fallacy of irrelevance, because the existence of a claimed phenomenon relies on the evidence that supports it. If one does not know (is ignorant of) the existence or otherwise of a claimed phenomenon, there is no logical basis for anyone to claim that because you do not “know” that ghosts or whatever don’t exist, that you should accept their existence – even tentatively.

But it’s an easy get-out for blowhards who claim paranormal expertise. The paranormal is just unsubstantiated tosh (I will change my opinion when someone demonstrates its existence unequivocally) and self-styled experts rely on their innate irrationality to gull the unwary, who are often equally irrational. (There are, of course, some deliberate frauds out there, but I’m not talking about them.)

If you find yourself in a discussion with a believer in the paranormal (or worse, an “expert”) then I would suggest  that you don’t even bother. But if you must, then keep in mind the “argument to ignorance”; these people always make outright claims that they cannot support with confirmable evidence. Just ask them for the evidence, and don’t be waylaid by what you now know is about to be thrown at you. You are entitled to ask for evidence for any extraordinary claim, and it is not up to you to disprove something that has no proof of its own. Nowadays, in the age of the internet, such a scenario might go like this:

Paranormal “expert”: Ghosts are real.”

Skeptic: “Can you prove that ghosts are real?”

Paranormal “expert”: “Can you prove that they are not?”

Skeptic: “You have just committed the logical fallacy known as argumentum ad ignorantiam.”

Paranormal “expert”: “You are wrong. And I might just sue you for saying so. Retract your statement and apologise, or else.”

(Legal thuggery is becoming commonplace on the internet these days as a means of stifling criticism: “I don’t have an argument, but I do have a lawyer.”)

Getting into a conversation with a believer or self-proclaimed expert is not very productive, however. You will not change the mind of someone who is closed-minded. (By the way, it is not open-minded to believe unsubstantiated crap; being open-minded just means being open to the possibility that you might be wrong – and being prepared to change your opinion in the light of new evidence. To be honest, I can only shake my head in astonishment and chuckle inwardly when those who offer evidence-free claims of the paranormal accuse me of being closed-minded.)

The Bottom Line

The Argument to Ignorance is a fallacy of irrelevance. The claim or implication that something is true because it cannot be proven false (or false because it cannot be proven true) is a common fallacy. The burden of proof is always upon the person who makes a claim – and the more extraordinary the claim, the more extraordinary the evidence that is required to substantiate it.

The fallacy is most often presented in response to a request for the claimant to supply evidence. When your debating opponent turns your request back over to you to prove him wrong, rather than proving their case with strong evidence, he or she is committing the fallacy of The Argument to Ignorance.

Don’t fall for it.

Believers And Skeptics Agree About Something

As strange as it may seem, and despite the often vigorous disagreements between sceptics and believers, there is one point upon which there is no disagreement at all. And the point is this: there are some psychics out there that are frauds (and some who are non-psychic but merely self-deluded).

The sceptical standpoint is that it is unlikely that there are any real psychics, and those who profess those abilities are either frauds or deluded. The difference between believers and sceptics, of course, is that the believers think that some psychics, at least, are real.

When I have visited pro paranormal blogs, I have often asked one simple question: how does anyone decide, objectively, whether any particular psychic is real or not?

An answer to that question would solve the dispute over the existence of the paranormal once and for all, I think.

It seems to me that knowing that the person you are dealing with is properly qualified to dispense the service he or she is involved in is crucial. If you visit your family doctor, for example, you might not actually wander up to his framed medical certificate on the wall just to check that it isn’t really just his cycling proficiency certificate. But you can be reasonably sure that he is not just pretending to be a doctor. It’s illegal, for a start, for anyone to profess medical qualifications that he or she does not have. That person could end up in jail for trying to pull such a scam.

In principle, however, it can be checked. You have every right to go and have a look at that certificate hanging on the wall. You can make enquiries about your doctor’s qualifications. If you really want to be pedantic about it, you can investigate further through all available channels. Doctors are registered (licensed to practice) and have to abide by all the rules, regulations and laws that that entails. In other words, they have to have proven they can do what they claim to be able to do.

It’s a bit different with psychics, however. Anyone can set up shop and call themselves a psychic (or medium, channeler, astrologer, intuitive or any other kind of paranormal or supernatural expert). No accredited training to undergo, no recognised regulatory body to oversee their activities, no exams to pass, none of this business about spending endless hours reading and researching the subject your university lecturer wants you to study (and then having to justify what you write in an assigned essay, complete with references from previous peer-reviewed research), and certainly no hard work at all.

Anyone – anyone at all – can set up business as a psychic. There is no regulation at all. No psychic has to actually demonstrate, objectively, that he or she can “communicate” with “the other side.” All they need is to find people who believe them. And those people are ten a penny.

Victorian seance real or bogusOK, then. I will repeat the question I have posed on various pro paranormal blogs: we agree that there are some fraudulent psychics out there, as well as some psychics who are not psychic but self-deluded; how do we tell which are which?

When I have posed the same question to anyone, I have been faced with either the fact that some people just ignore the question, or I get the usual excuses: it doesn’t work like that; psi cannot just be called up at will; the presence of an unbeliever upsets the psychic energy/psychic vibrations; etc.

If this stuff is real, and has been proven scientifically – as many of the pro paranormalists claim – then it should be easy to tell which psychics are real and which are not.

Oh, come on. There is no objective, testable, repeatable, tangible, irrefutable evidence that psychics are real. That’s why no paranormal “expert” can tell you how to know which are real and which aren’t. And when you think about it, that explains why parapsychology is the only “science” where a paranormal entity cannot actually be demonstrated, but the alleged existence of psi is inferred by the absence of natural explanations – in other words, “I can’t find out what’s causing this, therefore it is [insert preferred woo].” And that is just bad thinking.

It’s around a hundred and fifty years now, since the paranormal began to be investigated in what could possibly be described as a methodological manner. And after all that time, we are still waiting for proof that anything – anything at all paranormal – is even going on. It’s a good job we’re not still waiting for the big breakthrough in electricity. If things went the same in science as they do in parapsychology, we’d still be waiting for that awesome electricity stuff to be produced for our benefit; but we’d be reading about it by candlelight.

OK, then, I do not believe that the paranormal is real, because there is no confirmable evidence to support it; but I agree with the pro paranormalists who say that there are fraudulent psychics out there, and some who are merely self-deluded.

Now will they just show us how to tell the difference?

Look At It Logically

Ever had someone try to convince you of something he or she is trying to prove by saying, “Look at it logically…” and then trotting out their reasons why you should believe them? Or maybe someone makes their case and follows it with, “It’s logical, isn’t it?”

This happens to me occasionally, and I don’t suppose I’m in a unique position here. The problem, however, is that so often those people are wrong about the points they are trying to prove, but the way they state their arguments seems to sound vaguely sort of right, but at the same time you can detect that something isn’t right at all. But you might not be able to just put your finger on it. You might even know that that person is factually incorrect, but their argument seems unassailable because you can’t quite identify their error. What’s going on here?

That kind of scenario happened to me all the time when I was much younger. It didn’t matter what the subject might be, I couldn’t win an argument.

But when I went off to university, I chose a course which was Psychology, but which was structured in such a way that related subjects – such as logic as a complete course in its own right – was integral to the whole thing. I was determined that I would never lose another argument!

As it happens, even with an honours degree to show for my trouble, I still can’t win an argument – but at least now I know why. (Just kidding – I can win an argument; the problem, more often than not, is that the other person doesn’t realise it.)

The bottom line is this: everyone thinks that they think logically, but in fact humans are not “hardwired” to think logically. Humans have evolved to survive, and logic did not come into it. Better to dive for cover than stand there trying decide whether that’s really a predator coming at you. Logic is a subject – a method of reasoning – that has been developed over thousands of years by some of the greatest thinkers. From Aristotle to the present day, logic has been a work in progress, and science would not exist if the so-called logic of the average person underpinned it. In fact, there are many people who seem to be trying to destroy science and thereby take us back to the dark ages. That has to be fought against.

This new blog is going to tackle various paranormal, supernatural, UFO, quack medicine and other claims, but using logical reasoning to question those claims. One thing needs to be clear before we go any further, though: there is no way, logically, to prove a universal negative; in other words, I can’t disprove the alleged existence of the paranormal, etc., but I can show why various claims of so-called “paranormal experts” can be dismissed – or at least why they do not need to be taken seriously.

Let me say, however, I have no objection whatsoever if any paranormal, supernatural or any other related claim can be proven to be true. I would say this: if the paranormal can be proven to be real, then it would become a scientific fact the same as any other, whether you like it or not. A paranormal hypothesis that is actually testable, i.e., falsifiable in the scientific sense, is something I would welcome. In fact, rather than being called a debunker, I would really like to be the first person to be able to prove it is real. A Nobel Prize on my CV would be useful, after all.

I already have it worked out, as it happens. Once I prove that any single aspect of the paranormal is real, I can then spend the rest of my life raking in the cash whilst being feted around the world. There will be the book deals; the film rights (maybe Tom Cruise can play the part of me); the worldwide lecture tours; TV, radio and magazine interviews; glamorous women throwing themselves at me, etc, etc, etc.

But realistically, I don’t think that is really going to happen. I might just have to content myself with poking a pointy stick in the eye of irrationality. And building a resource for thinkers based on reason rather than belief.

But fear not, I have vowed to use my sceptical powers only for good. Here we go…