Monthly Archives: April 2013

Free Speech Now A Reality

At last Parliament has given the boot to the bully boy tactics commonly used by  those who have regularly resorted to the threat of legal action to stop fair criticism. The new defamation bill now just requires Royal Assent, after which the words, “Remove your blog post or I’ll sue the pants off you” won’t work.

There’s some information here, but there will no doubt be a lot more to come in the next few days as the media reports on it.

As a sceptical blogger, I am particularly pleased with this new law. It allows legitimate criticism of outlandish claims made by various members of the woo fraternity, but without the fear of being sued for trivial grievances. And what, exactly, is a trivial grievance? It could be a blogger saying to a paranormal advocate something like, “Where’s your evidence? You’ve been making these claims for years and there’s nothing to show for it.”

A statement like that infuriates the self-proclaimed experts who make a living from writing unsubstantiated cobblers aimed at  a credulous readership. When they are called out on it and challenged to provide the evidence that they say proves their claims, they respond with legal threats, not the evidence they say they have. Quite honestly (in my honestly held opinion, as it were) I think they have evidence, alright, but it’s probably the sort of evidence that would be laughed out of a junior school science class.

Then again, maybe their evidence for their paranormal claims is such that when they finally release it they will have the world at their feet: a Nobel Prize for starters, not to mention the worldwide adulation, invitations to lecture at the Royal Institution, etc., etc., …

Yeah, right.

I’ve been a victim of this kind of intimidation myself, although indirectly, in the sense that comments I made on another blog were taken down because the blogger was threatened with legal action if they stayed up. The comments I made on that blog were not libellous in any way, but the costs of defending a trivial claim can be ruinous even before any case gets anywhere near a court. So I don’t blame that particular blogger in any way; he was a victim of the kind of bullying that is now going to end.

Obviously, there does need to be protection for people against malice; publicly accusing an innocent person of some kind of wrongdoing is itself wrong and there has to be a system in place for suitable redress. The new law still protects people from libel, but the difference now is that libel laws cannot be used as a personal weapon to censor honest criticism.

So far it has been common for some people to proclaim all kinds of codswallop under the banner of freedom of speech, but at the same time stifling the freedom of speech of others by threatening legal action against anyone who criticises them. I suspect there will be a lot of bloggers right now busy dusting off old blog posts for republication – posts that were removed because of legal threats but which can now be waved in the faces of bullies who have had things their own way for too long

Bloggers can now publish on the basis of “Is it true?” rather than “Will they sue?” It’s nice to know that the people who have threatened critics with financial ruin could now be the ones facing hefty legal bills for bringing meritless claims that are going to be thrown back at them.

About time, too.

Dirty Dowsing

So the law has finally caught up with James McCormick. I wonder how many people have died as a result of this useless woo. The true figure will probably never be known, but at least this con man is about to get his just desserts. Dowsing for bombs? It was baloney from the outset, and there is a trail of death and destruction to prove it.

Dowsing, like all other claims of the paranormal, has regularly failed properly conducted tests, and of course the dowsers always try to explain away their failure with the flimsiest excuses. But this time there’s no getting away from it: dowsing can be a lucrative business (as it certainly was for McCormick) and in this case, at least, it has proven to be deadly.

Like other forms of woo, dowsing  is complete and utter bunk. The dowsers cannot pass a properly controlled test, and the only evidence in its favour tends to be anecdotal accounts. A favourite claim of the deluded paranormal supporters is that anecdotal accounts/personal testimony is valid evidence in a court of law, so it should be accepted as evidence for their beliefs. In this case, at least, science (and the law) has trumped woo, no matter how many anecdotes anyone wants to supply to support their irrationality.

Anyway, it’s going to be interesting to see what the paranormal community has to say about it. I’m almost tempted to say that now might be the time for the government to regulate practitioners of the paranormal, but there is one big stumbling block: I can’t think of a way to regulate something that isn’t real.

» Skepticism, Science And Ethics

I have to say I am feeling pretty devastated at the news that one of the leading lights in scepticism has pled guilty to a charge of fraud. Brian Dunning was accused of defrauding eBay by claiming false commissions – to the tune of several million dollars, and has now admitted his guilt to a US court. It’s possible that a clever attorney might argue successfully for him to receive a sentence of probation, but it seems more likely that he could spend time in prison.

I’m sure the woomeisters are going to leap on this news with some glee, so I want to say something about my own thoughts on the matter before they tear into it.

Dunning is someone I have admired for a number of years. I have followed his scepticism and enjoyed the insights he has brought to rational thinking about the irrationality of the promoters of the supernatural, the paranormal, pseudoscience, quackery and superstition in general. His past sceptical commentaries are still valid in their own right, of course, but I and other sceptics are well known for demanding integrity and honesty, and at the same time criticising without mercy the lack of ethics and even outright fraud of some promoters and practitioners of woo.

I will say this: Dunning has pled guilty to a criminal charge and I have no sympathy for him: if he’s done the crime, he will have to do the time. I have always believed that every sceptic – and in particular the most prominent ones – should hold themselves up to the highest ethical standards. Given the fact that all aspects of paranormal “research” over more than a hundred years have been riddled with fraud and delusion, there is a particular need for sceptics to be beyond reproach. This episode is a big let-down.

While I’m on the subject of ethics, I’ll mention another case that is in the news right now. Scientist Steven Eaton has been jailed for falsifying the results of cancer research he was involved in.

This is particularly awful because patients’ lives would have been at risk if his fraud had not been uncovered. The harm that could have been done would have been on a large scale, and I have even less sympathy for this former researcher than I have for Dunning. In this case, a jail sentence is well deserved.

I think it’s inevitable that the pro paranormal brigade will be feasting off these cases, joyfully pointing out that it isn’t just paranormal research that has been infected by fraud; here’s a sceptic and a scientist guilty of the same kind of thing. But is the comparison fair?

Not really. Dunning wasn’t being a “fraudulent sceptic,” he has admitted to wire fraud, which is a different thing altogether. It’s true to say, however, that sceptics who have visited his websites have also been victims: unknown to them, their computers have been used to generate false links that were part of the fraud. At the very least, it’s a betrayal of trust.

Nevertheless, the woomeisters will no doubt be making the false assumption that because he has admitted to it, then that somehow discredits scepticism generally. But it doesn’t.

With regard to Eaton, no doubt the paranormalists will be happy to point out an undeniable case of fraud in science (or scientism, as they annoyingly call it). Yes, unfortunately it can happen. But at least science is still self-correcting. The fraud was uncovered in time and the perpetrator has been severely punished. Sometimes it takes years to uncover wrongdoing in science but it is always found out and exposed eventually – by scientists themselves.

There’s nothing in these cases that the woo brigade should be overly pleased about, given the history of paranormal research. Not only have parapsychologists failed to produce satisfactory evidence that the paranormal is real, there are recorded cases of routine fraud by alleged psychics, and the inability of paranormal researchers to face up to the reality that they have been duped over and over.

My favourite example of such shenannigans is the case of Eusapia Palladino. Even the paranormalists accept that this alleged medium cheated at every opportunity, and yet they still regard her as genuine. Apparently the researchers at the time routinely uncovered her fakery, but there were some manifestations of hers that they couldn’t explain so they assumed that they were real. It didn’t occur to them that there might be trickery going on that they couldn’t uncover. But if they were here today and couldn’t explain how a stage magician did his tricks, would they declare him to have supernatural powers?

That’s just one example of a known fraud being supported by credulous investigators. And even in the present day, the fact that self-proclaimed psychics cannot manifest their alleged powers under controlled conditions is no deterrent for the believers. “It doesn’t work like that”; “These powers can’t just be called up at will”; “We’ll make any excuse to explain away the failures,” and so it goes on.

There is no doubt that there are fraudulent psychics out there, as well as some who really believe they have such powers but are just self-deluded. Will any parapsychologist point the finger and say publicly that any particular psychic does not have the powers they claim? Especially the celebrity psychics? No, they won’t – they wouldn’t dare. And the reason is simple: they cannot prove the existence of the paranormal, so there is no way they can disprove it  either. And as well as that, they would face the same problem that sceptics have when they doubt the claims of any psychic: allege that a psychic is not really psychic and the real threat of a libel suit heaves into view.

To put it bluntly, paranormal investigations have not added a single thing to mainstream science, so scepticism is justified and science is still the best method we have for finding out what is going on in what is, in fact, a material universe. If the believers in the paranormal feel smug or want to gloat at the downfall of a sceptic or a scientist, they should at least examine their own track record first – a history of fraud and delusion, and their absolute failure to prove the reality of a single paranormal claim.

Creationism Is Not Science

 Creationism vs ScienceMy previous post was a parody of religion and its malign influence on humanity. In particular, I was pointing out the way that superstition in the form of religion stops progress, and also the fact that it is only science that has enabled humanity to leave the caves and have the potential, at least, to live long and healthy lives in comfort and safety.

It can hardly be denied that religion has caused untold misery through the ages, and even now, thousands are being killed and maimed in the name of religion. But not only are people being murdered by the thousands, vaccination workers in Pakistan are being targeted and killed. Millions of lives have been saved through one of science’s greatest triumphs, and yet the ignorance and anti science of religion is managing to kill even more people by killing the very people who could have saved their lives.

All of that is bad enough, of course, but even in the western democracies there is a pernicious wave of anti science trying to worm its way into educational institutions – creationism. This is dangerous and has to be stopped. No one is trying to to prevent the religious from pursuing their beliefs in their places of worship or in the privacy of their homes, but there is no place in a science class for something that is not only not science, but is overtly the enemy of science.

I wrote the previous post after looking through some of the comments left on earlier threads. One of my creationist commenters said:

1) You believe that Creationism is unscientific.
2) Creationists believe that Creationism is scientific.
3) Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data. Both sides believe the other side is wrong.

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

There are few things I claim with certainty, but one thing is certain beyond any shadow of doubt: creationism is unscientific. Let me deal with the above points:

Point 1: The problem with creationism is that it works in completely the opposite way that science works. The thing that marks creationism as unscientific – even outright anti science – is the fact that it starts with the conclusion it wants to prove. Consider the fact that there are thousands of religions, each with its own creation story: each one has a different conclusion for which evidence has to be found. It’s easy to find evidence that supports a belief, but is the evidence falsifiable? If not, it is not science.

Point 2: Yes, creationists believe that creationism is scientific; in this post I will show why they are wrong.

Point 3: “Both of these opinions are based upon different interpretations of the evidence and data.” Except for one simple fact: creationists do not discover any evidence or data; real evidence and data are found by real scientists, and creationists can only attack the scientific evidence. They produce nothing original themselves. In any case, if evidence is open to wildly different interpretations, then you need better evidence.

The last point (not numbered) is either an expression of ignorance or an aspiration to overthrow science. It also sounds vaguely threatening.

One thing that can be said about creationism is that its proponents are profoundly ignorant about science. It is not what they think it is. In the simplest way I can think of stating it, science is a three stage process: observation; formulation of a hypothesis; testing the hypothesis. (It’s more involved than that, of course, but as an outline it covers the basics.)

Science begins when a phenomenon is observed. Whether it is something mundane or something totally unexpected, a curious person wants to know what is going on. Next, a possible explanation (the hypothesis) for the phenomenon is formulated – an explanation that is at least plausible. Then the hypothesis is tested to see if it does, in fact, explain the observation.

But here is the unexpected thing (which creationists cannot seem to grasp): the hypothesis is not tested to try to confirm the hypothesis, it is tested to try to disprove the hypothesis. In other words, a scientist tries to prove that the hypothesis he (or she) thinks is true is actually false (that’s called the null hypothesis). If it is false, then the scientist goes back to the original observation and formulates a new hypothesis to be tested. But even if the hypothesis is confirmed, it is held only tentatively – more testing needs to be done.

 

The principle of falsifiability in science is crucial. If a hypothesis is false, then there must be a way to prove it. This is not the same as trying to prove a universal negative. It is not possible, for example, to prove that psychics aren’t real. Even if a psychic fails a properly conducted test, all it tells you is that that person failed that test on that day at that time, but hey, they might get it right another time. No, falsifiability means that the parameters of any hypothesis should include a way to tell if the hypothesis is wrong. Although some people claim that evolutionary theory is unfalsifiable, for example, all it would take to falsify it would be (as someone famously said) to find a rabbit fossil in the precambrian. And there are many other possible ways to falsify evolutionary theory if it happened to be wrong.

Here’s the crunch – creationism does not provide much in the way of testable hypotheses. Ask a creationist how to test the hypothesis that his or her particular deity created the world and what do you get? Apologetics – in other words, a list of excuses to try to say why any particular creationist belief is not testable (but they still claim that creationism is scientific).

Here’s an example: Young Earth Creationists (YECs) insist that the Earth is no more than six thousand years old. Now that’s a hypothesis that can be tested.
Carbon 14 is a radioactive isotope that is abundant in nature and absorbed by all living things. When a plant or creature dies, it no longer replenishes that C14, which then decays at a known rate. By measuring the amount of C14 in an organic sample, the age of that sample can be calculated. The technique can measure age up to about fifty five thousand years, after which there is not enough C14 left to be measured. The technique has been tried and tested and is reliable.

If any material is dated that is older that six thousand years, then the hypothesis that the Earth is no more than that age is falsified. And that is what happens routinely (not even counting other types of radiometric dating that can go back billions of years).

Can the creationists accept these scientific findings? No, of course they can’t. God must have created the world with the “appearance” of age. Or perhaps Satan planted those fossils in the ground to beguile godless scientists. Even the speed of light must have changed in the last few thousand years just to make it look as though the young universe itself is old. All said with a straight face and no evidence whatsoever. If creationism really were scientific, then those YECs would accept that the Young Earth hypothesis had been falsified. But it isn’t, and they don’t.

It gets no better with any other aspect of religion. Hindus, for example, believe that there are an infinite number of universes – past, present and future, each lasting for trillions of years until they are all reborn. The latest measurements from science reveal that our universe is about 13.82 billion years old, but there is no way to test (falsify) the Hindu hypothesis (more accurately, faith), so the claim is not scientific (whether it is true or not).

Should creationism be given equal time in science classes? It’s easy to see one major problem: add together the number of creation stories from the thousands of religions that exist, then divide the number of hours dedicated to science in schools by the number of creation stories there are, and you would be lucky to have more than just a few seconds per week when science can be taught. And it goes without saying that each religion will have strong objections to anyone else’s religion being taught.

And that is what would happen – science classes would be replaced by religion, and the in-fighting in schools between those religions would just mirror the upheavals that have dogged mankind for thousands of years. No more scientific progress, just religious warfare but on a classroom level.

Creationism is not scientific, nor is it compatible with science. If religions ever did apply science and, more to the point, accepted scientific findings, then religion would just die out. Planets follow their orbits according to well established laws of physics, and there is no need to suppose they are being pushed by angels. Earthquakes happen because of tectonic movement, not because of some god’s wrath to visit punishment on wicked people. In short, the laws of nature follow regular and predictable patterns; gods are an unnecessary hypothesis.

I’ll mention one more thing: creationists point to the fact that many scientists, past and present, were/are religious, as if that proves that science and religion are compatible. The simple fact is this: scientists do not get their scientific results from prayer, even if they do have religious beliefs. Even if Isaac Newton was a devout believer in a divine creator, he saw himself as merely describing what he believed his god had put in place. (He did, apparently, believe that his god inspired him, but the bottom line is that he still had to do his own working out.)

That, in fact, is very important to keep in mind. Science is an endeavour that describes nature rather than trying to explain it. Newton described the laws of nature from his observations and calculations. But the supernatural as an explanation is something that cannot be tested scientifically. Newton and many other scientists may well have believed (and many still do)  that a god or gods are the ultimate explanation for everything that exists, but however religious a scientist might be, he or she can only describe the facts of what is going on out there, they cannot prove or disprove the existence of a deity that might or might not be behind it all.

My correspondent said:

Currently, Evolutionists hold the reins steering the direction of scientific teaching in our places of learning, It was not always so, and there may come a time when it will not be again.

But it’s not going to be much of a science exam where the answer to every question is, “God did it.”

That would be the end of science and a return to the dark ages.