Category Archives: Anti-science

What Will 2017 Be Like For Paranormal Claims?


Although I haven’t blogged very much in the last year, I have been keeping up to date with what is going on in the world of woo. The paranormal folks continue to claim that the only reason sceptics don’t accept the reality of the paranormal is that they have not read or studied the evidence, or that they are just trying to maintain some mythical scientific status quo, but that is simply not the case. Nowadays, for me, anyway, I spend much more of my time looking at woo websites than I do studying sceptical sites and blogs. The reason for that is pretty simple: I am looking for any evidence they have that will support – or even prove – the existence of any paranormal, supernatural, UFO or any other weird claim that is out there.

What I have found so far is that there is absolutely nothing new in terms of evidence supporting any afterlife, precognition, dowsing, telekinetic, poltergeist [etc. …] claims. What there is an abundance of, however, is a lot of moaning about, and attacks upon, sceptics and scepticism. There are websites and blogs that seem to be dedicated to criticising scepticism in general, and some of the more well-known sceptics in particular, but offering absolutely nothing (or at best, very little) by way of evidence to support the assertion that there is anything real about any paranormal or supernatural claims.

One theme I seem to come across often is the idea that those awful sceptics, if they were truly sceptics, should be good enough to be sceptical about their own position before they have the temerity to criticise others. Nice try, woo folk, but scepticism is not a belief system. Anyone who doubts a claim made by someone else (and it doesn’t have to be a paranormal claim, it can be anything) is simply doubting that assertion, whatever it might be. He or she is merely sceptical about something that perhaps contradicts their own experience, knowledge or training. You say you have fairies at the bottom of your garden? I doubt it, but I don’t see any reason why I should think my scepticism itself needs to be doubted. Show me the evidence for these alleged fairies, but don’t suggest to me that I should doubt the need to doubt a claim that requires evidence rather than a deeply held belief or unquestioning faith before it can be accepted as true.

I’ve seen some trends over the last year (and longer), namely the tendency of the woo promoters to mangle the words of some very prominent scientists and sceptics and try to use them for their own purposes. For example, Carl Sagan’s famous phrase, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” is often used by the woo people to support their own claims and silence the sceptics (who actually understand what he was really getting at). Here’s how the argument usually goes:

 Woomeister: Aliens from another galaxy are visiting our planet. They regularly abduct humans and perform unspeakable experiments on them (usually involving anal probes, sexual intimacy, genetic manipulation of our DNA and so on), not to mention the fact that Area 51 houses captured aliens and their spaceships, UFOs are all over the place, we are being observed and monitored, accounts of alien interference in world governments are true, “Ancient Aliens” is a series of factual documentaries [and so on and on].

 Skepic: Oh, right. I would like to see the evidence for that.

 Woomeister: There is plenty of evidence.

 Skeptic: So, can I see it, then?

 Woomeister: No.

 Skeptic: Then your claim has no basis and I can dismiss it. Show me the evidence and then I might change my mind.

 Woomeister: The fact that you haven’t seen the evidence does not mean that there is no evidence. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, after all, so you should be open minded about my claim.

 Skeptic: You want me to accept a claim which, if true, would mean that the well-established and well-tested laws of physics are wrong – which I think is extremely unlikely; that is why claims such as yours have to be rejected. Maybe you really have uncovered some hitherto unknown force of nature, but only a fool would accept your – or anyone else’s – word for it. In the meantime, your claim is still rejected. What you call “open minded” is what I call “gullibility.”

And this is how many of my conversations with believers go; no doubt it will be pretty much the same in the coming year. The point is (or should be) easily understandable: absence of evidence is simply that – an absence of any reason to believe the absurd and ridiculous assertions made by those who promote what are extraordinary claims, but don’t feel the need to provide the equally extraordinary evidence that might support it. And those people think that I am the one who is being unreasonable.

No; alien visitation, for instance, is not impossible, perhaps, but it’s not good enough to simply assert that aliens from outer space must have developed faster than light travel, or the means to distort space-time by way of a warp drive, or that they can somehow do some kind of interdimensional space-hopping or even time travel. Any of those would do it, of course, and it’s easy to make up any fantastical method of travel, but without anything to back it up. No one has presented any alien artefacts, and no one has presented a testable theory of any of the methods of travel so far claimed. A Nobel prize and worldwide acclaim awaits anyone who can do that.

In fact, whatever the woo claim made – anything from aliens to spoon bending – the promoters have to think up something allegedly paranormal as an explanation for strange events for which they cannot find an ordinary explanation. But that’s one of the peculiarities of human psychology – we all want an explanation for things that happen, but in many cases a wrong explanation will do just so long as those explanations fill the gap, so to speak. And any tenuous evidence will also suffice – however wrong it might be – if it gives support to the relevant proposition.

I have to admit I find it tedious to see the same old justifications for the myriad woo claims out there being recycled endlessly without anyone who does so doubting (being sceptical of) their own position – the very thing they whine about when it comes to sceptical scrutiny of their claims. The point is: the promoters of all matters paranormal appear to have no doubts whatsoever about their beliefs, even though they cannot support them with confirmable evidence; their only other option is to try to rubbish the criticisms they come in for, for that very reason.

Something I find annoying also, is the mangling of logic that the woo promoters indulge in constantly. There are, in fact, some websites and blogs that actually try to debunk logic itself! The paradox here, though, is that to prove that logic is wrong, they have to try to use logic to do so, and in that case they are using arguments that are self-defeating because they are trying to use reason to prove that reason itself is wrong.

In fact, the woo people are not using logic, but rhetoric – a linguistic device that can sway the unwary into believing that the weak woo argument defeats what is actually a stronger logical argument. Rhetoric usually involves an appeal to the emotions of the listener, and unfortunately it is true that if a person’s emotions are put in conflict with their logic, then emotion wins every time. Ask any salesman. People don’t buy things because they need them, they buy because they want them. The woo people – in particular those who have a book to sell, maybe – don’t offer evidence for their claims, they sell you an idea; if you want to believe, you are more likely to buy it.

Here’s something to think about: next time you want to buy something, why not buy second hand rather than brand new? I occasionally do so. There is no way I would pay a hundred pounds or more for a shirt or any other item of clothing, although I do have some (second hand) designer clothes in my wardrobe. This is something I discovered when my wife worked in a local charity shop. There are people who buy clothes brand new but don’t even wear them. They are well off enough that they can simply buy expensive clothing, decide they don’t like it after all and just give it away. A similar thing applies to furniture, cars and all manner of things. A brand new hundred-pound shirt can be bought for just a few pounds, but it depends on whether you are willing to look at things in a way you normally don’t.

The same applies if you want to get the best deal on your utility bills. You don’t need to just accept your electricity supplier’s new rate, nor do you need to go to one of the many “comparison” websites. Do as I do, if you want to try it: phone another supplier and just ask them if they can beat the new rate you have been offered by your present supplier. They will probably offer you a better rate, but then you go to a third supplier and quote both of the offers you now have. That supplier might well offer an even better rate. Eventually you will find that after a few tries, you have found the cheapest rate you can reasonably get. Then phone your present supplier and ask them if they can beat – or match – the cheapest quote you have found. Remember that every supplier knows all of the rates offered by every other supplier, so they know you aren’t just bluffing. You don’t even need to suggest (threaten) that you might change supplier if they don’t give you a better deal, you are just asking if your present supplier can match a better quote that you have. Often, they will beat or just match one of the lower quotes you have, and that saves you from bothering to even change suppliers. But even if they can’t match your lowest quote, they might offer something better than they are offering you now, so you now have the opportunity to switch or stay, and save money anyway. OK, it might take ten or fifteen minutes to actually trouble yourself to make those phone calls, but for a potential annual saving of tens or even hundreds of pounds, it’s worth a try. It has worked for me. (I also suspect that some consumers might even spend unnecessary hours just surfing all of the comparison websites out there, without even eventually committing themselves to any change anyway.)

So, what has any of this got to do with scepticism? Well, it has to do with looking at things from a critical (or sceptical) point of view. Is my electricity supplier’s price offer the best they can do? I doubt it, and I might well delve into it to find out. Can a psychic contact the dead? I doubt that, too, and I will try to find out about that also. One thing I don’t need to do is to doubt the need to doubt extraordinary and sometimes completely absurd claims. Utility bills are real, everyday things; psychics are not – at least until someone proves that spiritualism, aliens, telepathy and all the rest of the psi claims out there are as real as that actual piece of paper that comes through the letterbox saying you owe money to someone.

Although I haven’t blogged much recently, I have been taking note of some of the bad thinking going on all over the internet, in particular the sites and blogs that promote woo in its many forms, but then attack anyone sceptical of their claims instead of providing the evidence that would change the scepticism of others into acceptance. Has science been wrong before (a common moan from the believers)? Yes, of course, but how often has any form of psi been confirmed? (Never, as it happens.) And how often has psychic research been wrong? All the time. The believers will not accept that, of course, but I invite any of them to give a single example of any scientific theory that has been replaced by a better, paranormal or supernatural, explanation of the workings of nature.

I confess that I get particularly irked at those writers that think they have some scientific insight into science itself, even though they are completely ignorant of what science is or how it really works. When you get down to it, science is, admittedly, imperfect, but it is, without doubt, light years ahead of any religious, parapsychological or any other woo way of explaining nature, and it also works when it comes to exploiting the laws of physics to our advantage. I know some very religious people, for example, who still rely on modern medicine to keep them alive rather than prayer to their preferred deity; also, there are heart-breaking examples of religious people killing themselves (and worse, their children) by ignoring science in favour of faith.

The reality of the situation is this: the paranormal has not been proven to exist at all; there are numerous examples of anomalous experiences that people have had, of course, but nothing that has been shown to be truly paranormal or supernatural. Failing to find a normal explanation for an unusual occurrence does not mean that a paranormal explanation is the default alternative. And that is why the paranormalists do not have their research published in reputable scientific journals; it’s nothing to do with scientists defending some status quo, it is to do with the fact that paranormal assertions that are claimed to be scientific have to be supported with actual science. And that just doesn’t happen.

Anyway, let’s see what 2017 is going to bring. My sceptical powers (that I have vowed to use only for good) tell me that there will be no proof forthcoming of any paranormal claim that might be made in the next twelve months or so. There will, however, be numerous scientific advances that will be derided by the woomeisters as unproven hypotheses or whatever. But the thing is, whether science has been wrong in the past is neither here nor there: science is the best method we have to find out what is going on out there. The alleged paranormal always leads absolutely nowhere. Think about that as you drive to your destination using satnav, also knowing that you have not succumbed to smallpox, polio or any other formerly death-sentence diseases as you were growing up. And if you want to disagree with me about my views, feel free to use modern science-based technology like computers and the internet to let me know. (Note: telepathy might not work, but by all means try it, and then leave a comment electronically on this blog to let me know it’s my fault that your psi powers let you down on this occasion.)

I might spend some time in 2017 examining the faulty reasoning (bad thinking) of some of the woo promoters who specifically attack science and scepticism, and just expose precisely where some of their specific claims are wrong, misleading and, sometimes, just outright dishonest and, very often, outright dangerous.

But: I hope my readers have had a merry Christmas, and that you have all enjoyed your new year celebrations. Now we have to prepare ourselves for the sceptical year ahead.

New Year, Old Struggle

We are now into the sixteenth year of the twenty first century, but it’s hard to believe it. Mankind has created the most scientific and technological society that has ever existed on this planet, and yet we are still surrounded by primitive superstition that would stop it dead in its tracks if it can ever get away with it.

Although I was brought up within a religious and superstitious family, I was able to notice after I left school and got out into the big wide world that the religious beliefs, superstition and, frankly, bigotry that I was taught as I was growing up, just didn’t match my own observations. And after several decades of those observations, I conclude that reality, supported by testable and confirmable evidence, is more reliable than (and preferable to) untestable and unconfirmable belief or faith.

Look around you and notice things. While the religious zealots are torturing and killing people, science has landed a spacecraft on a comet half a billion miles from Earth. It’s easier, I’m sure (although I couldn’t do it myself), to kill someone in the name of some god or other than it is to study science for years and do positive things that no amount of prayer will ever achieve.

Is the paranormal real? It’s certainly easier to make excuses for why psi claims don’t actually work than it is to produce the claimed effects. And just as easy to whine that those like me – sceptics – are just nay-saying curmudgeons who are just “desperate to protect their world view.”

Do the quack nostrums of homeopathy, chiropractic, faith healing, reiki and all the rest of the nonsense peddled for profit by (maybe some) well-meaning but unqualified (in scientific terms) practitioners do any real good for people? Someone suffering an ailment might be able to say honestly during such treatment (self-reporting) that they actually “feel better” as they undergo that “treatment,” but that is not the same as actually being cured. Germs and cancers do not disappear as a result of quackery, even if the sufferer has, as they often say, even with the latest medical treatment, “good days and bad days.”

Will your horoscope in the daily newspaper really be accurate today? Or maybe it would be better to pay through the nose for a personalised chart that will give you nothing other than a self-fulfilling prophecy – as long as you interpret it in the way that confirms your expectations and beliefs after the events you think they are predicting.

It could be that you will consult any pro paranormal website or blog that tells you why sceptics are “wrong in their beliefs” but don’t provide any testable evidence for that claim, which is really just sour grapes because the woomeisters have to face the fact that rational, scientifically literate people don’t go along with belief over testable evidence.

I could go on and on about all of the superstitions people prefer over actual reality, but by now if you have read this far, you might be starting to understand my frustration. I am one of those people that the paranormal promoters call, disdainfully, a “materialist!” Even worse than that, I am what they call (gasp, shock-horror) a “pseudosceptic,” one of those rationalists who don’t believe without question the paranormal anecdotes presented to me.

What can I say to it all, except, do you deny that the universe we inhabit does, in fact, have an actual material existence? I have to wonder why, but get no answer to the question, how can the “immaterial” exist for a start off, and how can it affect or interact with, the actual material (real) universe we all live in? Why don’t the physical laws of nature prevail over the immaterial (non-existent) “laws” of, er… the paranormal? In fact, what (physical or non-physical) laws control this immaterial paranormal “energy” or whatever it is? Where is the actual theory of the paranormal? (And when I say theory, I mean “theory” in the scientific sense.)

There is no such theory. A scientific theory can exist only if there is something there that can be shown (with a high degree of probability) to exist. At the moment, as has been going on for over a hundred and fifty years, paranormal investigators are still trying to show that there is anything paranormal going on at all. None of that has been demonstrated conclusively; so far, there is no compelling reason to think any of it is true.

And yet, no one needs any supposedly precognitive ability to just know that the year 2016 is going to be another non-stop tsunami of woo. That will include everything from serious paranormal researchers failing again to prove their claims, to outright frauds bilking the gullible for personal profit. There will also of course be well-meaning but off-beam believers spouting incorrect claims supported by totally wrong assumptions about the nature of, well… nature itself.

I will say this yet again: I do not believe in the existence of the paranormal or the supernatural, but my mind can be changed if anyone can prove the claims they make. However, those claims will have to meet the rigorous standards required by science, which does not mean someone’s heartfelt belief, or a single experiment that no one else can replicate, or an anecdote from some “eminent person of good character,” or any number of ad hoc rationalisations to explain what is maybe anomalous but not necessarily paranormal.

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:




“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

In 2016 we are going to see more TV shows, books, and everything else about UFOs, ghosts, and all manner of irrational nonsense, supported by ignorant people who are willing to subscribe to it all and therefore pay for and perpetuate a kind of mind-numbing, modern-day “opiate for the masses.” Sensible programming about science – the true reality programmes – are (still) going to be side-lined, or given the least prominence because actual reality does not have the same commercial value to TV producers. That’s a shame, but it illustrates the problem.

For the forthcoming year of 2016 CE, I wish all of my readers a Rational New Year and freedom from Bad Thinking, while I continue trying to do my bit to fly the flag of reason. Wish me luck. (No, not luck, it doesn’t work like that… er, no, it really doesn’t; it’s a struggle.)


Analysing Skeptics?

I’ve often been accused by the believers of “not looking at the evidence” for the existence of psi – or any aspect of the paranormal. That isn’t true; I like to read anything I can come across that purports to provide evidence for anything paranormal whatsoever. I have quite a collection of books on various aspects of what is claimed to be paranormal, and there is a large number of paranormal blogs, websites and twitter accounts I follow.

What I notice, though, is that a huge majority of those sites do not actually provide evidence of anything paranormal; rather, they tend to attack sceptics. And worse, their view of scepticism in general, and sceptics in particular, is so far removed from the reality of the situation that I don’t wonder why the believers are as wrong in their perception of the paranormal as they are when it comes down to their mistaken view of scepticism.

I thought about this when I came across a recent post on Michael Prescott’s blog, cutely titled, Skeptics On The Couch. It’s not the first time I’ve come across a believer giving a “psychological analysis” of what they think goes on in the mind of the average sceptic. More interesting is the fact that Michael Prescott – like many other paranormal proponents – has no qualifications (as far as I can find out) in psychology anyway.

My interest here is that I do have a degree in psychology, so I look with a jaundiced eye when unqualified people blather on about it. But more than that, the same people usually have no qualifications in any scientific discipline whatsoever, but happily quote various fringe scientists who claim to have provided decisive evidence in favour of various matters paranormal. The same people also express indignation that mainstream science will not accept the “findings” of parapsychology, but they are blissfully unaware that their ignorance of science prevents them from understanding why science doesn’t accept it. It’s one thing to say that some parapsychologists have produced “evidence” that the paranormal is real; it’s another thing to be able to read a scientific paper and actually understand it. It is yet another thing to be able to examine the research paper in question and be able to deconstruct it and explain it in a meaningful way that would be understandable to others – in particular, non-scientists. It’s yet another thing to look at it and say, “He’s got it wrong, and here is why…”

What might be wrong with the methodology or the statistical results of any example of paranormal research? I really don’t think that Michael Prescott is in a position to criticise science or sceptics until he understands science and how it works.

But it’s easy to complain. If you really, really believe something, you might not be able to accept that others don’t. And you might also not be able to support your belief with testable evidence, and you also might not be able to provide falsifiable evidence, and you might not be able to just provide anything substantial of any kind. What you provide might not be scientific at all. If that’s the case, then just stop for a moment and ask yourself why your evidence is criticised.

Michael Prescott assumes that sceptics have a belief system, and that if those beliefs are challenged, then sceptics enter a state of cognitive dissonance – an uncomfortable mental state where two conflicting beliefs are held at the same time, forcing the person to do some mental gymnastics to overcome that dissonance. Therefore, according to Prescott, sceptics have to find ways to dismiss evidence that contradicts their beliefs.

However, Prescott commits the same fallacy as other believers, namely, assuming that scepticism is a belief system. In fact, sceptics are not defending a belief system of any kind; they are challenging those who do have beliefs, to prove their claims. It’s not part of any belief system I have that ghosts don’t exist, but when people claim they do, then the onus is on them to prove it. The claims made by paranormalists contradict what science knows about the laws of nature, and it’s not up to me to disprove those claims. If ghosts do exist, for example, then the believers have to show how it is possible for psychic “energy” to exist without contravening the laws of thermodynamics. If telepathy and the claims made for it are true, then it is up to the believers to demonstrate why the inverse square law doesn’t apply, as it does with, say, radio communication.

After about a hundred and fifty years of what might be described as serious research by parapsychologists, they are still trying to prove that there is anything paranormal going on at all. The research they produce is not accepted by mainstream science for some basic reasons – flawed experimental design, failure to replicate, statistical errors and so on. It is not, as Prescott would have you believe, because scientists and sceptics are protecting their worldview, it is because parapsychological research fails the basic tests of scientific research. And as well as that, there is no theory that underpins paranormal claims.

My own suggestion for the believers, if they want their claims to be accepted, is to produce someone who can perform the paranormal feats they claim to be able to do. Publicly predicting lottery numbers would be one thing, perhaps. Even better, in the light of recent events, would be providing the information that would allow governments to prevent any further terrorist attacks.

But let me head off any objections to that particular suggestion. It would be said by the believers that if any psychic did go to the police with such (specific) information, then he or she would likely be arrested because it is assumed that only inside information could give details of a specific terrorist event.

That’s OK, though, because our psychic could give information about terrorist attacks all over the world – but could one person really know the details of all the daily terrorist attacks that are ongoing? It would be recognised very quickly that a more likely answer to this conundrum is that this psychic is the real thing. That person would go from being an arrested suspect, to the most protected asset in the world. Terrorism would be stopped dead in its tracks. What really happens, of course, is that it is only after a major event – terrorism, earthquake or whatever – that the psychics appear and claim they knew about it beforehand.

But now come the excuses for why it doesn’t happen. We’re told that paranormal abilities are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will. It doesn’t work in the presence of an unbeliever. A skeptic in the room upsets the psychic vibrations. And the list goes on, and on, and on, but none of the ad hoc excuses presented can be tested or confirmed.

Similarly, there is no limit to the speculation about how paranormal phenomena supposedly occur. Is a ghost or apparition really made of “energy,” as many paranormal pundits say – as if energy is some kind of substance or “stuff”? To say that a ghost or anything else is “made of” energy, is to do no more than to expose one’s total ignorance of physics in particular, and science in general. It’s a belief without (dare I say) substance.

Another ad hoc speculation is quantum physics to “explain” the paranormal. I can’t help wondering why quantum physicists themselves aren’t all over it – if the paranormal exists and really is quantum based.

And so it all goes. The existence of the paranormal is not proven; its promoters have endless excuses for why it doesn’t work when tested under properly controlled conditions; and the ideas about how it supposedly works are nothing more than speculation with no way of testing any of it. Whose belief system is under threat here? The promoters of the paranormal have only beliefs, built on nothing but hope and wishful thinking. It certainly isn’t sceptics who are worried that their supposed beliefs or worldview are going to be seriously challenged any time soon.

As always, the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim, and is independent of what anyone else believes or disbelieves. If anyone’s belief system is under threat, then it is the belief system of those who already believe in things that simply do not fit in with what is already known about how nature works.

If anyone is suffering from cognitive dissonance, then it must be those who believe the paranormal is real. They are faced with an inability to prove their claims, and the fact that science does not accept any of it (for very good reasons). The way out of their dissonance is to assume their beliefs are true, and to claim that science just wants to maintain a perceived status quo at all costs. The fact that science thrives on new discoveries and would embrace the discovery of a new force of nature (call it psychic energy if you want) seems to escape them.

No, the bottom line is that sceptics, and science in general, are not defending any belief system, nor are they afflicted by cognitive dissonance. Personally, I feel no need or desire to disprove the existence of ghosts, telepathy or anything else; my own interest is in trying to get the proponents of the paranormal to actually prove their claims. The fact that they cannot understand science or why they have not proven their case to a reasonable level is something they themselves are unlikely to come to terms with.

The evidence available suggests that the paranormal does not exist, except in the minds of the believers. There are innumerable cognitive biases that people fall prey to, and those biases have been well studied and are quite sufficient to explain why the strong beliefs of the believers can be so resistant to change. Science changes in response to new data and new experimental results, so scientists can’t be justifiably accused of being either closed-minded or defending a particular worldview. The people who are guilty of that are those who spend time promoting paranormal claims, and are unable to understand why those claims are untenable.

In the meantime, I would just point out to them that they know as little about psychology as they do about physics – or any other branch of science. Sceptics aren’t the ones who hold unsupportable beliefs; the paranormalists themselves are the ones who have a belief system and worldview based on faith alone. Unfortunately, the more prominent promoters of woo often have a strong following of other believers who are even more ill-informed than them. So their own belief system is reinforced and further promoted.

It’s just a pity that faith is so easy, while science is so hard. It’s easier to believe, and so hard to know. And even easier, apparently, to psychoanalyse the people who would like to see some convincing evidence.

Former Bishop of Durham calls for Christian Theocracy, As Islamists Call For Sharia, While Atheists Just Want A Peaceful Life

bish of durham exSo, it turns out that a former Bishop of Durham, Dr Tom Wright, reckons that it’s about time democracy was done away with and replaced with theocracy.

As this article from the National Secular Society puts it, the Bish says:

“The whole meaning of God’s kingdom is about the one true God calling time on the world’s wicked empires and setting up a radically different empire instead.”

But we had all that in Britain a few hundred years ago when Catholics and Protestants were in some kind of race with each other to see who could torture, maim and burn the most heretics (i.e., each other, mostly) . And don’t forget – it was Christian “morality” that caused all that suffering for so many people. Maybe the Bishop would like to see a return to that good old fashioned fire and brimstone control that the church could exert over the ordinary people. Even kings came under the control of the church.

Yeah, let’s start burning philosophers and astronomers again. But the Bishop has, whether he likes it or not, been overtaken by the Enlightenment – which he also detests, apparently. Possibly referring to the present refugee and migrant situation, he says:

“The problem is that the West has bought so deeply into the narrative of the Enlightenment and then can’t understand what has gone wrong when the tragedies of this world literally wash up on our shores.”

Bought into the Enlightenment?  As if that is a bad thing? Yes, of course: no theology ever invented by man (they’re all patriarchal, after all) has ever had any use for anyone who could think for themselves; that sort of thing is the biggest danger to any religion, of course.

The only way nowadays that a religion could replace democracy in this country (apart from the constant threats of violent revolution by some Islamic extremists) would be the the paradox of democracy – if enough religiots voted together, then democracy itself could be voted out of existence.


The (mostly masked) Muslim people (men, not women, of course) in the above picture are using their democratic right to freedom of expression to demand that their right to freedom of expression should be revoked so that they should not be allowed to do what they are now doing – demanding that they should not be allowed to demand the law be changed to stop them demanding what they are demanding. If you can work that out, put your answer in the comments. (It actually comes within the logical fallacy of circular reasoning or, more formally, begging the question. In other words, Bad Thinking.)

Maybe the Bishop would like to see a referendum on the subject. He can’t invoke the power of the church to enforce his version of theocracy, but I wonder if he would be prepared to put his idea to a democratic vote? The population of the UK could have a vote to decide whether we have our present system of government (which is itself far from perfect by any objective measure); a Christian theocracy; an Islamic theocracy; a Hindu theocracy; a [insert a long list of religions here] theocracy; a plutocracy; an oligarchy; even pure anarchy or a new version of the Wild West, where individuals make their own laws which, almost by definition, is pure chaos and lawlessness anyway. In such a scenario, you would be given the right to have all your rights taken away from you! (After that, though, you won’t be able to change your mind again.)

Personally, I’m not taken with the idea that I might (actually would) be tortured and killed in the Bishop’s ideal society just for not believing in his particular god. I find the whole idea unsatisfactory. As an atheist and secularist I think that all religious people should have the right to follow their own religion without interference and that right should be protected by secular law. Similarly, people who have no religious beliefs should have the same rights and protections to not be forced to follow any religion. The only proviso I insist on is that so long as people follow their religion or lack of the same, they cause no harm to any other person.

If you are religious, then by all means bow to and worship whichever god or gods you believe in. I am not going to interfere with your right to do that, but I expect the same courtesy from you: I do not believe in your god or gods; so don’t interfere with my own lack of belief.

For as long as I can stand on my feet, I will defend your right to grovel on your hands and knees.

In the meantime, Bishop Wright can sod off back to the middle ages – where all religions belong. I’ll stick with the Enlightenment, thank you very much.

Haunted Drivel–The Eerie Power Of Video Editing

GhostI found yet another paranormal “reality” TV show recently as I was idly flicking through the hundreds of channels available nowadays. This one is called Haunted Collector, and its theme (or gimmick, depending on your point of view) is that a demonologist (no less) heads up a ghost-hunting team that seeks to resolve paranormal problems by finding and removing supposedly haunted objects that are the focus or cause of whatever haunting they are investigating.

There is more information about the series at Wikipedia, and a rather less-restrained critique at Rational Wiki. Long story short: the team investigate a haunted location and subsequently identify an object that is haunted. The owner of the property is then offered the opportunity to have the object removed (free of charge) into the personal collection of the head ghost hunter, therefore also removing the haunting that has been going on. The fact that these items are often antiques, sometimes worth lots of money, is neither here nor there, of course. If someone is gullible enough to believe in ghosts, and stupid enough to hand over valuable antiques for someone else’s personal collection, that’s up to them, I suppose. There’s nothing illegal going on, apparently, but it must be ethically dubious at the very least.

What caught my attention in the episode I stumbled upon – about a supposed haunting in an old west brothel about to be converted into a modern hotel – was a glaring filming and editing blunder. To be honest, I wasn’t really studying the programme, but when I looked at the screen, I noticed some kind of mark or smudge near the centre of the picture. That was during a segment supposedly filmed in darkness with a night vision camera.

Here is the problem: as with all similar scenarios, the action and the conversation between the people involved was continuous and uninterrupted. When I’ve watched these things before, I’ve assumed that they must be using at least two cameras – maybe even three. Obviously, the pace of the action is more dynamic and engaging if different camera angles are used, thereby allowing each person’s dialogue to be intercut quickly, as well as their facial expressions as they react to whatever is supposed to be going on.

However, the same smudge appeared in every camera shot as the picture switched between the various characters, although their conversation appeared continuous and uninterrupted. This is where I call, “foul.” It looks like the mark in the picture would have been caused by some kind of contamination on the camera lens, but an identical mark would surely not be on a second, or third camera. And yet each cut from one person to another had that same mark spoiling the entire sequence. (In fact, when I looked across to watch this particular scene, I thought at first that there was a mark on the television screen itself, but it wasn’t that.)

It’s pretty clear that the scene I was watching was filmed on just one camera. And it seems reasonable to suppose that in a low light scenario the cameraman (or woman) would easily have failed to notice a small mark in the picture.

If that is the case, then it means that the whole scene was an act, rather than spontaneous and unrehearsed, as the viewer is led to believe. The only way the scene could have been done as presented would be to stop the action at certain points, and then for the people involved to carry on their dialogue after the camera operator has adopted a new point of view. Obviously, if that is the case, then it follows that the whole thing is a set-up; the shrieks of fright and everything else must be staged for the sake of dramatic effect rather than real reactions in a live, genuinely haunted situation. In other words, there were no truly spontaneous reactions to anything that was going on (if anything at all was going on).

I guess the mark on the camera lens was not noticed until some time later in the editing suite, but it would be too late by then to do anything about it. It’s unlikely that it would be possible to get everyone together again maybe weeks later to re-shoot it all, so there would be no choice but to use the footage they had. And a scene crucial to the whole show could hardly be left out.

Using a single camera but showing multiple camera angles is a legitimate technique most of the time. A TV news report will do the same thing by focusing on the interviewee, but later record the interviewer as he asks the same questions again, not to mention cutaway shots before or after the interview itself. That just makes that segment more interesting for the viewer, and as long as the edited version transmitted is accurate in its factual content, then that’s OK. For the creation of dramas, the technique is essential, but at least there is no pretence there that the production is live or anything other than fiction, produced for entertainment, and no one is pretending that what is being recorded is anything otherwise.

What you see is not always what really happened when you saw it. Misperception and misinterpretation of observed events explains a huge percentage of what many people think are actual paranormal events (not that you will ever convince a true believer they’ve got it wrong). So consider the possibility that a paranormal ghost-hunting show aimed specifically at the confirmed believer is using, essentially, actors merely pretending that something eerie is happening when it isn’t. Add to that some creative editing. Then think of the symbiotic relationship between the people who produce these TV programmes and the people who want to watch them to confirm their irrational beliefs. In this case, the viewer sees what he or she thinks is a live recording, but it’s nothing of the sort.

There are people who produce nonsense, and there are people who are prepared to pay for an endless supply of it. Market forces in action, perhaps, but it’s a dumbing-down overall. The people who eagerly watch this bilge are consumers, not thinkers. And the producers of the same bilge are just shrewd suppliers, filling (and sometimes creating) a demand in the marketplace, and perhaps also using the specific marketing techniques that will ensure a continuing supply of mugs dupes marks viewers.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: a sceptic’s work is never done. Anyone who believes anything that is portrayed in this or any other ghost-hunt type show – especially anything supposed to be filmed with night vision cameras – is guilty of bad thinking.

Shame on the the perpetrators of such nonsense.

Extraordinary Ignorance

The woo people don’t like it when they make a paranormal claim, only to be met with disbelief by rational thinkers. Are some people being abducted by aliens from another galaxy – or even another “dimension,” for example? Can some people really contact the dead? Is it really possible that others can bend metal using only the power of their mind? Is remote viewing for real?

For a sceptic like me, those claims – and many others like them – come under the heading of “extraordinary.” And what makes them extraordinary is the fact that no one who makes such claims can prove, in an objective way, that what they say is true. More importantly, however, they are all claims that do not align in any way with what we know about how the laws of nature work.

A claim that goes beyond what science knows about the universe and everything in it is definitely extraordinary. The woomeisters don’t help their case either when they try to hijack areas of science, making claims that science itself doesn’t. Sticking the word “quantum” into a pseudo-explanation of telepathy, for instance, is not an explanation at all – particularly since no one has even proven that telepathy is real.

Nevertheless, extraordinary claims about the paranormal continue, and because no one can actually prove them, there are several standard responses to sceptics about them that the believers and promoters have to rely on. One of the standby tropes they come out with to the sceptical notion that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence is one that I come across more and more often, which is:

What is extraordinary to you is ordinary to others, who experience it all the time.

The argument seems to go something like this: If you met someone who has never heard of TV, say, then the idea of seeing moving pictures together with sound, coming from a box sitting in the corner, would be an extraordinary claim to that person. But to you, it is within your ordinary, everyday experience, so it isn’t really an extraordinary claim, is it? So stop asking for extraordinary evidence for what some people regard as perfectly ordinary.

Anyone who thinks that is a good argument is guilty of bad thinking. Perhaps it could be called desperate thinking, because it is nothing more than an attempt to bypass the need for evidence. Some people might think they are experiencing paranormal phenomena, even on a regular basis, but that is the very thing that needs to be proven. If anyone doubts my claim that TVs exist, I can take them into any TV shop and they can see plenty of them.

Someone who has never heard of TV would be justified in doubting my claim if the best I could say to them was something like, “But it’s an everyday experience for other people.” They would be perfectly rational if they asked for evidence. They would be, well, sceptical. Should they be called pseudo-sceptics because they want evidence? And yet people like me are called pseudo-sceptics by the woo promoters and accused of being unfair or closed-minded for wanting confirmation that an unscientific – even antiscientific – claim is actually true.

Nearly a week ago, there was a huge earthquake in Nepal. Thousands of people have been killed, many more injured, and the full extent of the tragedy cannot be fully known yet because there are many areas cut off and unreachable. There have, however, been a few heartening stories coming out of the region, such as the fact that a young boy has been rescued alive this morning after being buried under rubble for five days. There will probably be others still buried but alive and hoping to be found.

This is a situation where those people who claim to have paranormal abilities could prove their claims beyond any doubt whatsoever. But I have to ask: where are all the remote viewers while all this is going on? They’re certainly not in Nepal pointing out to rescue workers where any survivors are buried. If they were, it would certainly make me sit up and take notice.

No, while paranormal promoters are busy right now telling us that all of the alleged powers they say are real and possessed by certain gifted individuals are not extraordinary at all, people are suffering and dying. For some reason, none of them seem to want to do their bit in a humanitarian effort to save lives. Why not – if these alleged abilities aren’t so extraordinary after all?

As I watch and read reports of this disaster, I start to feel rather annoyed. People who supposedly have miraculous abilities that could be saving lives right now in Nepal are rather silent at the moment. If some paranormal promoter says to me in the near future that extraordinary claims don’t need extraordinary evidence, I don’t think I’ll bother to engage them in a logical argument. The best answer I can think of at the moment is simple: “You’re full of shit.”

And I don’t think I’m making an extraordinary claim when I say that.

Creationism Is Not Science

IMG_20150110_175325My last post was a very brief answer to an article in the Shields Gazette on Thursday, 26th March 2015, in which Mike Hallowell complained that I have criticised his anti-scientific beliefs. I said I would give a fuller answer to his article on the Bad Thinking blog because his original article has not been published on the Gazette’s website. I obviously don’t have a right to reply there, but at least I can reply here.

Mike reckons he doesn’t have a problem with science itself, it’s the “culture that often surrounds it” that bothers him.

Mike says:

I don’t mind scientists telling me what they’ve discovered, but what I don’t take kindly to is being told what I should believe.

Give me the facts, but don’t get heavy-handed with me and tell me how I should interpret them.

In all probability I’ll bow to the expertise of scientists, but I reserve the right not to on occasion. And that’s what some individuals don’t like.

All creationists are happy to accept what science has to say, but only up to a certain point: if science comes up with something that happens to contradict a religious believer’s faith, then that is where their acceptance of scientific discovery stops.

Mike is under no obligation to believe what science has to say about anything, but what “some individuals don’t like” is the campaigning by many creationists to have religion taught in science classes. Religion and science are totally separate issues that are simply not compatible with each other.

Similarly, the so-called “debate” between evolutionists and creationists is a non-issue, except for the creationists. If they want to believe that a god or gods created the universe and the life within it, no one is stopping them from following their religious beliefs. Science would quite happily ignore religion if only religion would keep itself to itself. Unfortunately, religions do not produce new knowledge; what the religious believe is already written down and it would be considered blasphemous to question holy scriptures, so nothing in religion is going to be tested, questioned or changed in the light of new scientific research. Creationism is simply not scientific, and “creation science” is just an oxymoron.

I find it ironic, however, that the religious – like Mike in his article – refer to what they call “scientific dogma.” At the same time, they also claim – like Mike does in his article – that science changes, even to the point of discarding ideas that were eventually found to be wrong. He says science is dogmatic, in an article where he also says it is always changing. He appears to see no contradiction there.

But what about those scientists he mentions who had religious beliefs? After moaning that I have said in the past that if creationists could be reasoned with, there would be no creationists, he says;

I don’t know about you, but I find that sort of attitude appallingly arrogant, for it forces us to presume that great minds like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, Herschel, Joule, Pasteur and Kelvin were so beyond the pail (sic) of rational thinking that they could not be reasoned with.

As far as I have been able to determine, all of these geniuses believed in a creator.

What Mike says there is simply a red herring – a rhetorical device intended to divert his readers’ attention. Perhaps all the scientists he lists were believers in a creator; Isaac Newton in particular was a devout Christian, but he saw himself as merely discovering and describing what he believed was his god’s creation. Nowhere in his scientific writings does he invoke any supernatural explanation for any of his observations. Other scientists don’t appeal to the supernatural either.

The same applies when a similar argument is utilised with regard to the USA, for instance. Yes, it is a world leader in science; it is also a very religious (primarily Christian) country. But its scientific accomplishments are despite, not because of, the religiosity of its citizens. The science is done by (mostly godless) scientists, not by those who are motivated by, and seek, supernatural explanations for what we see in the world and the universe around us. The US constitution keeps religion out of state schools and universities. Keep in mind the fact that scientific breakthroughs come from purely secular institutions, not Bible colleges or any other religious organisation.

Natural events can be explained by natural causes, and you will not find any legitimate scientific research report appealing to the supernatural as a cause for anything. Whether the religious like it or not, science progresses while religion stagnates.

Mike then comments:

Swiftsure also admits that science “is not a perfect system” but if it isn’t perfect, why should people be ridiculed for rejecting some of the things science currently teaches?

It’s true that science isn’t perfect, but it’s the best system we have to find out about the objective reality that is out there. Those who reject science are ridiculed when they make claims that are, well, ridiculous.

Using the same oxymoron as above, Mike continues:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

The point here, though, is that the people he refers to are not doing any actual science anyway. It’s a classic example of people who think their beliefs have – or should have – equal standing with empirical research, whining that science ignores them. If they could come up with solid evidence to support their beliefs rather than just trying to nit pick perceived faults with evolutionary theory then they would be taken seriously. But trying to replace established and well tested biological science with “God did it” isn’t good enough. Strong faith is regarded as an admirable characteristic in religion, but in science faith is a weakness (even a liability) not a strength.

Mike’s next comment merely illustrates that he is talking about things he does not understand:

I don’t get angry in the least when I hear people deny creationism, but I openly confess I do not like the high-handed, arrogant and often venomous way in which some evolutionists belittle those who do not agree with their views on the origin of life.

This is the standard trope of the typical uninformed creationist, who thinks that science is trying to compete with their particular god or gods. For Mike Hallowell’s benefit, let me make this point clear: no one knows how life originated. Science makes no claims about how life began (although there are people working on it). The theory of evolution has nothing to say about how life started. Evolution is a science that investigates how life evolved after it began, not how it came about.

The next thing Mike says is possibly the most eye-rolling of his diatribe:

We’re told science is “self-correcting”, [Mike is referring to me, again, informing him of that], but that’s a process which only works if one allows for dissent and open debate.

And you can’t have open debate if you believe those who disagree with you are too stupid to be reasoned with.

Creationists who disagree with science with regard to evolution are in the same situation as someone who disagrees with the accepted “dogma” that an internal combustion engine has to be operated with petrol or diesel fuel. Dissent and open debate are regular features of science – but that happens between scientists, who do change and adapt their theories in response to new evidence. But should a non-engineer who has no training in, and knows nothing about, engines be “debated” with? Such a person obviously can’t be reasoned with. That doesn’t mean they are stupid, but their ignorance can hardly be denied.

Mike is still on his high-horse, however. He says:

Many creation scientists have been bullied, harassed and threatened because they reject the theory of Darwinian evolution.

I don’t know about any literal bullying, harassment or threats that Mike mentions, although those people might interpret the rejection of their anti-scientific views as being that. In reality, creationists cannot get a foothold in academia for the simple reason that the very concept of “creation science” is a non-starter as a method of discovery. The only thing creationists do is to try to pick faults with existing evolutionary theory – particularly in areas where there is genuine disagreement between real scientists. Where there are areas in which scientists don’t know yet what is happening, creationists fill those gaps in knowledge with the all-encompassing and untestable “God did it.” The true purpose of creationism is to get rid of any aspect of science that contradicts the actual dogma of religion.

But Mike isn’t finished yet:

No matter how convinced you are about the wonders of science, just remember: behind every currently accepted scientific doctrine lies a long trail of discarded ones which seemed just as sensible in their day.

Unlike religion, of course, where the battle against disease and every other adversity we come across is fought the same as it always was: with faith, prayer and an assortment of rituals and incantations.

Science itself didn’t actually start on any particular date; it began when thinking people started to question religion. A drought was never overcome by prayer, for instance, but some people reasoned that bypassing gods and digging irrigation ditches would work – and it did. While some people were offering worship to their god during an outbreak of cholera, others were actually doing something useful – finding a source of clean water that was not contaminated with whatever was actually causing the disease. Those people were wrong when they thought cholera was caused by a miasma – a bad smell – and they discarded that idea when they found out about germ theory. Yes, that’s pretty much how science works – by keeping what works, and discarding what doesn’t. But Mike sees that as a bad thing.

Before science as we know it now, people were lucky if they lived to their mid twenties. It is the advancement of science that has brought us out of the dark ages, but it is the unchanging dogma of religion that would take us straight back there. And it might yet succeed. Mike, according to his article, is clearly also a global warming “sceptic,” (read, denialist) and he has the same complaints about science and what it has to say on the matter.

Unfortunately, the anti-science lobby is very influential, supported by religion and vested interests. However, when the rising water levels on this planet start lapping around the denialists’ ankles, they might start to pray, but by then it might also be too late. We have a realistic chance of avoiding disaster if we act now by listening to, and acting upon, what science has to say about it.

When the Earth becomes a water-planet with most of what is left of the land a parched wilderness, science will be able to do no more than say, “I told you so.” And the religious will replace their failed prayers with, “It was God’s will; we can’t do anything about it. Praise the Lord.”

If religion would stop trying to interfere with reality, we would all – including the religious – be much better off.

Meanwhile, here is a snapshot of our evolutionary history. No one is being told they have to believe it, it just happens to be true whether you believe it or not.


Addendum: This is strange; the above article is now on the Gazette website here:

It doesn’t appear on any of my feeds on any of several computers I use in different locations on different networks, and I came across it only by chance when I was looking for something else. Nevertheless, you can now click over there and read it; there are some interesting criticisms (at least there are at the moment; it’s not unknown for the Gazette to remove criticisms, so read now while you have the chance).

What’s the difference between a donkey and a UFO?

I recently came across another piece of inane blather from a self-styled paranormal “expert.” And it’s just too good to pass up.

This blog, Bad Thinking, is dedicated to exposing the logical fallacies and poor arguments used by the promoters of, and believers in, woo generally. I’ll not name the “expert” in question, but some people might take an educated guess – it’s more guff about UFOs, after all.

Like a lot of fallacies, this falls into an area of overlap, so to speak. And a lot of fallacies do. This could be called a category error, or it might be called a false analogy. It also comes under the heading of the appeal to popularity and, in the context of the original article, the appeal to authority. It’s one of those errors of reasoning that doesn’t fit neatly into one specific slot, but it’s an error of reasoning, nonetheless. But it’s also an exemplary example of how to fit so many fallacies into so few words.

First of all, I will give the relevant quote from the newspaper column I found it in. Here we go:

If 1,000 independent witnesses tell me they’ve seen a donkey running down the middle of King Street, odd though that may be, I’d be pretty tempted to believe them.

Why? Because the idea so many people would independently decide to tell such a fib without any apparent motivation is far more difficult to swallow than the idea of a donkey running down the street.

DonkeyThat’s from an article promoting the idea that UFOs and their alien pilots are here, but that it’s all being covered up by governments around the world, and we should all believe it because, well, you know, why demand evidence when other people say they’ve seen it – just believe what you’re told: lots and lots of people say so; what more do you need? And this author makes a living from writing about what other people say. Yeah, right…

Here’s a brief analysis of this published piece of certifiable bad thinking:

The fact is that

  • 1: There is no doubt that donkeys are real.
  • 2: There is plenty of justifiable doubt about the existence of aliens and their space ships visiting this planet.
  • 3: Unproven claims of UFOs are entirely different from claims about established facts (they are in different categories).

It wouldn’t take a thousand witnesses to convince me that they had seen a donkey running down the middle of my local High Street. Even if it seems unlikely, I would probably reserve judgement until I got some further confirmation (a report in the local newspaper, say) but I wouldn’t be too worried about it. After all, there are news reports from time to time about escaped animals causing havoc, so the idea of a donkey causing inconvenience to some local shoppers would be unusual, but not totally implausible, and certainly not impossible.

It wouldn’t even matter if just one person told me he had seen it himself, even if he just happened to be a pathological liar who had fabricated the whole story just to wind me up. That would not alter the fact that donkeys are real, and that no one disputes their existence.

UnicornWould the author of the article believe what he was told if a thousand people informed him that they had seen not a donkey, but a unicorn running down his local high street? Like UFOs, no one has presented compelling evidence – and especially not proof – of the existence of these mythical creatures, so believing an uncorroborated report of what is certainly an extraordinary claim would be irrational.

The same goes for UFOs. These alleged alien spacecraft are not proven to exist, however many former astronauts and military personnel claim to have had access to aliens and their technology. Many of these people are making a handsome living from their books, articles, public speaking engagements, television appearances and so on. But not one of them has provided testable and confirmable evidence of any of their claims.

Has NASA been exploiting alien technology since the so-called alien flying saucer crash in Roswell in 1947, as many conspiracy “theorists” assert? You might want to believe it, but I would point out that rockets are still using chemical propulsion to get into orbit, not anti-gravity devices. Has transportation been revolutionised by teleportation technology, or are we still using cars, trains and planes? Can anyone prove that the truly massive structures being designed and built nowadays are being put together using the same alien technology that some would have you believe was the only way that the ancient Egyptian pyramids could have been built? Is humanity so stupid that we can’t do anything ourselves on a big scale unless someone else from light years away just provides it for us?

To put it plainly:

  • The number of people who make a claim is irrelevant to the claim’s veracity (that’s the appeal to popularity).
  • The status of those people is also irrelevant, even if they are former military personnel or astronauts (that is the appeal to authority).
  • Claiming a link between things that have no connection is a category error, and also quite often an argument by false analogy.
  • Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence; hearsay just won’t do if you want to be taken seriously.

The author of the article obviously thinks that claims about donkeys (which exist) are equivalent to claims about aliens (for which there is no evidence to show). He is wrong. Maybe he believes in flying horses and talking ants. Who knows?


So the difference between a donkey and a UFO is simple: one of them really does exist; the other has as much evidence available for its existence as there is for unicorns, i.e., none at all.

Belief without evidence is called faith, and it is also bad thinking.

Science Doesn’t Know Everything

MP900341489It’s true – science doesn’t know everything. It’s also true that science has been wrong about things in the past. There have also been cases of scientists committing fraud by falsifying their research results, and some of the big research companies have not exactly been untouched by charges of outright corruption. I’ve even highlighted some of that on this blog myself. So is it time to give science the heave-ho?

Actually, although science has to face up to the same problems that confront every other institution or business, it is in fact the most valuable and successful enterprise humanity has ever created.

It goes without saying, of course, that the religious and the woo people don’t like it because it usually contradicts their cherished beliefs. Religious and paranormal claims have nothing to support them by way of testable hypotheses: science cannot even confirm that anything supernatural or paranormal is happening anyway, never mind what these mysterious forces might be. What is “psychic energy,” for example? Science happens to be very good at detecting and measuring energy, so why can’t it detect so-called psychic energy? Is it just because science doesn’t know everything?

When you get down to it, though, the religious and the woomeisters accept and rely on science in every aspect of their lives except one specific area – their own particular, closely-held cherished beliefs. I detect some hypocrisy here.

Take religion, for example. Ask a believer to do something extraordinary by prayer (that they believe works), and you get a refusal because “it doesn’t work like that.” God will not be put to the test, or some such excuse. A religious person whose life is saved by medical science prays to and thanks their particular god for their cure; the physician or surgeon who did it gets a polite thank you as an afterthought.

Take woo in general. If you meet someone who claims to be psychic, ask for next Saturday’s lottery numbers, but you will be told “It doesn’t work like that.” (Psychic powers are rare and elusive and can’t be called up at will – or any of a list of similar excuses.)

For these people, science is regarded as useless – only because science doesn’t support their beliefs. But science is not about belief, it is about things that can be tested. When yet another psychic fails an objective test of his or her powers, there is always an (untestable) excuse for their failure. Does the presence of an unbeliever (a sceptic) really “upset the vibrations”? What vibrations? Psychic vibrations? What are they and how can they be tested?

The remarkable aspect of all investigations into the alleged paranormal is that parapsychologists assume the existence of the paranormal only because they are unable to find a natural explanation for what they can’t explain. It’s a bit silly, if you consider it for a moment: “I have observed something; I can’t think of how it could have been done by normal means; therefore it is paranormal activity.”

Personally, I have watched magicians do things that I can’t explain. Then again, after some consideration, I have been able to work out for myself how some of those tricks were done. There are many other tricks that I cannot work out. But one of my correspondents told me some time ago that he had interviewed Uri Geller who, he believes, bent one of his keys, and he “knows” that Geller (magician) just could not have fooled him.

Similarly, some years ago, when I was arguing a point on another blog, I asked my correspondent if he would be confident enough to sit with me in a theatre, watching a stage magician, and explain to me as the act went on, just how those tricks were being done. I got no reply of any significance to that, but I think he might have realised that maybe he, like me, cannot just see through the trickery and deception that stage magicians use to entertain us all. But some alleged psychics do the same thing – is there a good reason to think that just because you can’t immediately explain something unusual that it must be paranormal, supernatural or just actual magic?

Science tries to find out what is going on out there. It’s true that science doesn’t know everything, and there are lots of gaps, but that doesn’t give anyone the right to fill in those gaps with guesswork that just happens to align with their personal beliefs. In fact, historically, every time science takes a step forward, religion and woo have to take a step back. Those gaps are closing.

It’s an easy claim, of course: “Science doesn’t know everything, therefore this or that paranormal or supernatural claim must be true by default. What else could it be?” But look at it this way: does science know more than it did last year? What about the state of scientific knowledge a hundred years ago? Until the late 19th century, science as we understand it now was called “natural philosophy,” but in those days science – a systematic search for knowledge – was still going on.

Think back to the ancient Greeks (or should that be the ancient Geeks?). Although they believed in gods, the work they produced was nothing short of astonishing. Eratosthenes worked out that the Earth is a sphere (approximately), and its size to within a few miles, for example, although in the same society Socrates was regarded as something of a heretic and was sentenced to death. Rather like today, any scientific research is OK just so long as it doesn’t contradict religious dogma.

Clever as they were, though, the Greeks didn’t develop radio telescopes, space flight, antibiotics, electricity, computers, the internet, a theory of nuclear fusion (they thought the Sun was a burning hot stone), a theory of relativity, quantum mechanics, a global positioning system, television, radio, etc., in other words, all of the things we just accept as normal nowadays. Philosophy preceded natural philosophy, which in turn preceded science as we know it now. Back in those days, there was plenty of scope to say philosophy (science, in other words) “doesn’t know everything.”

Things weren’t much different from now, two and a half thousand years ago, when it comes to wanting to know what makes the Earth and the universe “tick.” As clever as the Greeks were, they still had the same psychology that humans have today – an inbuilt need for answers. Unfortunately, humans have a tendency to accept any answer, however wrong it might be, just to feel that they know what is out there. Thunder and lightning? If you don’t know about electrical charge and how it builds up in a cloud, leading to a lightning strike, then a made-up angry god will be a good enough explanation. And once you and your tribe have that belief built into your culture, woe betide any upstart philosopher, natural philosopher or scientist who tells you that you don’t need to sacrifice animals – or humans – to appease this non-existent god. The philosopher or scientist who shows that disaster can be avoided with a lightning rod could end up on a pyre for disagreeing with accepted religious doctrine.

SAM_0423I notice, however, that every church I pass when I drive around just happens to have a lightning conductor that reaches even above the steeple of that church. Why should that be? And why should that piece of copper cable reach higher towards God than the top of the steeple itself? Maybe it’s a better protector of God’s house than God himself.

The empirical knowledge we have now is way beyond anything the ancient Greeks had, and since then, that knowledge has increased and is still increasing. And over the last two and a half thousand years, there has been opposition to scientific knowledge from ignorant people – often as a mob – who think they have some insight unavailable to those who actually test and measure the universe around us. From the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria by (probably) a Christian mob, to the famous book burnings by the Nazis in the middle of the 20th century, to the burning of priceless books and the destruction of ancient relics right now at the Mosul Library in Iraq by Islamic militants, the fight against knowledge by the ignorant continues.

Although it’s true that science doesn’t know everything, it knows more and more as time goes by, steadily closing the gaps that were formerly filled by claims of a god or gods. But science knows better than the ignorant that as questions about the universe are answered, more questions are thrown up in their wake. That’s what spurs science on.

The religious can claim, “God did it,” as if that answers anything at all, but religion does not lead to new knowledge, it leads to stagnation.

The paranormalists also stop further inquiry by not only failing to demonstrate anything paranormal, but by excusing their failure to do so by criticising science – those closed-minded researchers who are hell-bent on “preserving scientific dogma at all costs.” But while they accuse science of preserving some imagined, unchanging dogma, they also claim that science is always “changing its mind” about things.

The reality is that science tests the testable. It makes no attempt to actually explain nature, science merely describes nature. Why nature and the laws of physics are the way they are will likely never be explained. But the facts of nature and the laws of physics can be described and utilised for our benefit, even if no one will ever know “why” they are the way they are.

I don’t why E=MC^2, but it does. So we have GPS satellite navigation, nuclear reactors providing our electricity needs and so on. When you get down to it, piety and prayer provide nothing of practical value in the world, paranormal claims provide nothing of practical value in the world, no amount of belief in anything gives us anything of any use whatsoever.

If you have an electricity supply in your home; a connection to a safe water supply available, literally on tap; if you can access the internet or health care or even a library, then you are reaping the benefits brought about by science. If you really want to claim that because science challenges your deeply held beliefs that it doesn’t support, then just stop using science and its benefits. You don’t have to go far to prove you are right and science is wrong; just contact your energy supplier and have your electricity supply cut off. If you have a gas supply for your heating, that’s even better – have that disconnected too. Have your water supply stopped. Pray to your god to sustain you, or use your psychic powers to survive. If you can do it, science can measure it and confirm that there is something going on here.

That’s not going to happen, is it? In the meantime, science might not know everything, but it works. Religion and woo don’t.

Then again, I’m a sceptic. I can change my mind in the same way that science changes in the light of new evidence. Show me the evidence. Or show me next week’s lottery numbers. Or create world peace with a prayer.

Science 1; Quackery 0

MP900337366A German biologist has been ordered by a court to pay 100,000 Euros (more than £70,000) to a doctor who rose to his challenge to prove that measles is caused by a virus, as opposed to his own view that measles is merely psychosomatic. Although the doctor, David Barden, provided the necessary proof, the quack biologist Stefan Lanka refused to pay up. Hence the court case to make Lanka honour his pledge.

This is great news on different levels. There are many financial prizes offered by sceptical organisations to anyone who can prove the reality of various paranormal and quack claims, the most famous being the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge. But there are others, and the total prize money available around the world goes far beyond that. Apart from a few claimants who have nothing to lose by trying their luck, none of the big names in the psychic or quack arenas will attempt those challenges.

Commonly, they claim that those challenges are bogus anyway, even fraudulent and that a winning claim would not be paid out. But the honest reply to those claims is simply that the sceptical challenges are fair and legally sound: a failure to pay out for a winning claim would leave the sceptic challengers open to legal action with severe penalties over and above any prize money they offered in the first place. There are simply no takers from the ranks of the most prominent paranormal and “alternative medicine” practitioners, who rake in a lot of money annually from writing and practising nonsense that sometimes puts lives at risk, even if those practitioners genuinely and truly believe their own nonsense.

Let’s be down to earth here: the most prominent woo people in the world are going to suffer a blow when they can’t pass a sceptical, but scientific, test of the extraordinary claims that they can’t get past ordinary scientific peer review anyway, where a monetary prize is not the goal, but an addition to scientific knowledge is.

I notice, of course, that there are several challenges like this one aimed at scientists and in particular sceptics, by people who are regarded by many as outright cranks. Their challenges tend to be based on anything except testable evidence. There are some well known challenges from people like Kent Hovind, Victor Zammit and others (I’ll leave it to you to Google it for yourself), who have offered lots of money to anyone who can disprove their claims (in other words “prove a universal negative”), but based only on their own personal judgement, or the judgement of some alleged unnamed committee appointed by themselves.

That’s not how science works, and in this case, it has led to the downfall of someone who appears to be actually qualified in a biological science, but who has allowed his personal beliefs to override his logical thinking faculties. I don’t know all the details of this case, but it is reasonable to suppose that Lanka was just a bit too self-confident, forgetting to allow himself the usual get-outs of the woo fraternity. Maybe he asked for scientific evidence, in which case he condemned himself by forgetting to say that his prize offer would be only at his own discretion. I don’t know, but given the fact that woomeisters continuously speculate in discussion that a court of law would accept this or that evidence, perhaps they might shut up now.  A law court is not the place where scientific matters are resolved; a court is where matters of law are decided.

Perhaps this will send a clear enough message to the purveyors of anti-science: go ahead and take up Randi’s – or any other legitimate – challenge. The courts will back you up if those challenges are, as you claim, fraudulent.

For some reason, however, I don’t think there’s going to be a stampede in Randi’s or any other sceptics’ direction.