» 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.

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