Category Archives: Logic

Some People Don’t Like Science

Promoters of the paranormal, the supernatural, quack medicine and every other off-the-wall claim all seem to dislike science, and as far as I have discovered, there are two main reasons they offer:

  • Reason 1: Science is dogmatic and unchanging. (That’s why it won’t accept “new” ideas like the existence of the paranormal.)
  • Reason 2: Science is always changing. (Science doesn’t really know very much; if it knew about the world, then it wouldn’t need to accept new ideas.)

You might see a contradiction there, but the woomeisters don’t seem to notice it.

Science doesn’t accept the paranormal as real, of course, because it is mostly untestable, and many of its claims have been soundly refuted anyway. The burden of proof is on those who make claims for the paranormal, but even those parapsychologists who think they have proven its existence have only demonstrated that they have, at best, observed something anomalistic. It doesn’t follow that there is some kind of psychic energy at work.

On the whole, parapsychology has no theory that can be tested or exploited, and that is why science rejects it. Speculation about some alleged mysterious force that cannot be be detected or measured objectively is simply not scientific. And because it isn’t scientific, it cannot become part of science.

Answering the two points above, I would say this to the paranormalists:

Make your mind up. If science were as dogmatic as the believers in the paranormal, then no scientific progress would be made. Science changes in response to new discoveries; it formulates new theories to account for the new facts it discovers; it modifies old theories to accommodate new findings; sometimes it discards old theories altogether when they are discovered to be wrong (even though the old ideas “worked” quite well within the old framework). You can hardly accuse science of being dogmatic at the same time you accuse it of always changing.

The paranormalists are the people who are dogmatic. They hang on to the idea of “psychic energy,” for example. They can’t demonstrate this force that they believe exists within (or even outside of) the universe, and they just make excuses for their failures. That’s why it can’t become part of science.

Try this thought experiment:

I claim that electricity is real. So I invite you to my home where I claim that I can merely flick a switch and the whole of my living room will be bathed in light. So you come around one evening at about dusk, just as the daylight is receding and the moment of truth comes: I confidently flick the switch, and… nothing happens!

What do I do? If I tell you that it failed because the vibrations aren’t right, or that, as an unbeliever, you have disrupted the “power” (as it were), or if I told you that electricity is a rare and elusive occurrence that can’t be called up at will, or if I gave you any number of excuses equivalent to the excuses given by the woomeisters when their claims fail objective tests, you might be rather sceptical, dare I say, about the claims I have made.

Then again, I might ask you to wait while I replace the light bulb, because it could have burnt out. If that didn’t work, I might check the consumer unit and replace the fuse or reset the circuit breaker. If that didn’t work, then I might check the switch itself for a loose connection. And so on. In other words, I could go through a logical process to identify and then correct the problem, after which I would throw the switch and prove to you conclusively that my claim about electric light is true. Not only would I have proven my claim, but I would also have demonstrated that there is an underlying (testable) theory of electricity. I would not be making a claim I could not prove, and I would also not just be making excuses for failure.

The believers, and their heroes (those high profile parapsychologists who cannot get their research published in reputable scientific journals), complain that science somehow just “shuts them out” because of its intransigence and dogma. They laud their most prominent researchers (that they like to describe as mavericks), and complain bitterly that it is scientific dogma that will not allow them onto the scientific stage.

On the other hand, scientists (and sceptics) regard some of those paranormal researchers not as mavericks, but as cranks. Can it really be true that the whole of science is wrong, as opposed to woomeisters who cannot demonstrate the simplest claim they make, about a force they cannot present, and which when it fails (as it always does when properly tested), can only be accounted for by excuses they cannot prove, either?

Over many years, I have met people who claim to have various psychic abilities. Some of those people are even members of the Spiritualist religion and claim to be able to contact the dead. But their claims always fail. Unlike my example from the reality-based world of a claim I might make about electricity, their own claims never hold up. Those claims always fail objective tests, and excuses just won’t do.

Ask a clairvoyant to tell you what next week’s lottery numbers will be (I know that’s a cliche nowadays, but cliches gain that status because they tend to be based on truth). The answer is always along the lines of: “It doesn’t work like that.” So you won’t get the lottery numbers, but your clairvoyant will not be winning the lottery next week either, as he or she did not last week, this week or anytime in the near future. (I’m not discounting the possibility that your average psychic couldn’t win the lottery just by pure chance, but to be credible in a claim that it was their psychic powers that did it, it would have to be repeatable, and that’s another reason why you can’t accept a single, dumb-luck outcome as evidence of anything paranormal).

The bottom line is really straightforward: Science is not dogmatic; science changes in response to new discoveries. And that’s the way it should be. It’s why science advances, and parapsychology doesn’t. 

All the paranormal people have to do is to prove their claims. Right now, science does not accept the paranormal is real, but that will change if the paranormalists prove what they claim, without making excuses for constant failures. If any paranormal researcher makes a true breakthrough and demonstrates conclusively that any aspect of the paranormal is real, will they complain if science “changes” its “dogmatic” viewpoint and accepts it? We’re into Nobel Prize territory here, after all, so any scientist will be interested in proving the existence of some hitherto undiscovered law of nature.

The claim that science is dogmatic but always changing is a logical contradiction; it is also bad thinking, as well as simply a case of sour grapes.

Personally, as a supporter and defender of science over superstition, I find it rather satisfying and reassuring to know that there are many examples of science being forced to re-evaluate itself when something has come along to upset the apple cart, so to speak. Yes, some of science’s hypotheses and theories have had to be amended; sometimes they have had to be discarded altogether. Over time, however, science is not kidding itself that it “knows everything.” Science leaves that claim to the woomeisters and the religious.

For the benefit of those who believe that science is dogmatic, at the same time as they believe science is always changing, I offer this advice to keep in mind as they pursue their research:

Arse elbow illustration 3

Learn that distinction and you’re on your way to understanding what science is all about.

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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.

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?

Pegasus 

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.

In Support Of Santa

I’ve just recently noticed that a number of people aren’t too keen on Santa Claus – the imaginary jovial old man in red who brings toys to good girls and boys each Christmas, but might only deliver a stocking full of cinders to the naughty. What’s going on here?

I noticed in Mike Hallowell’s Gazette column last week that he thinks it’s about time youngsters were told “the truth”. As he puts it when he ponders whether it’s time to send Santa into retirement:

“I’m certainly no kill-joy, but I think the reformers have a point when they say that enough is enough, and that its time we told the youngúns the truth about where those presents really came from.”

Mike’s point is understandable, of course; since he converted to Islam a few years ago, everything he writes is now from a strictly Islamic perspective, and also explains why his Gazette column now avoids his previous beliefs in psychics and mediums, and his former belief that UFOs are alien space ships from outer space.

But he does echo the beliefs of his and some others’ religions; I’m thinking in particular of the Jehovah’s Witnesses who worship Jesus Christ, for example, but for whom Christmas itself is not celebrated, never mind it being a time for Santa and presents.

For the religious, the idea of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad is clearly something that children should not be taught. Mike Hallowell and other religious people think they should be taught the truth: in other words the story of an imaginary magical guy in the sky who rewards the good and punishes the bad.

Oh. Er…

To be fair, though, there are some some sceptics who seem to have a similar idea about what children should be taught. Take a look at this:

DearChildren

DEAR CHILDREN One Day You Will Learn About Santa Claus. On That Day Remember Everything The Adults Have Told You About Jesus.

That’s going a bit too far, I think. It’s a good idea to teach children how to be rational as they grow up, and over time encourage them to develop logical thinking skills, but there’s plenty of time for that.

Despite what any religion might tell you, all babies are born atheists. They have no knowledge of any gods, after all. In fact, they have no knowledge of anything at all. As the philosopher John Locke put it, the mind of a new born baby is a tabula rasa – a blank slate upon which life’s experience writes itself. That’s why children adopt the religion of their parents and every other belief they come to hold. Superstitious parents raise superstitious children; educated parents raise educated children; criminal parents raise criminal children. There are exceptions, of course, but the general pattern tends to hold true.

Is there really something wrong if children believe in Santa – or the Tooth Fairy, or the witches and wizards in the fairy stories their parents read to them a bedtime? I don’t think so.

I look at it this way: children are not expected to believe in Santa into adulthood. It’s a nice fantasy that parents know their children will grow out of. Same thing with the Tooth Fairy. Unlike religion, which is designed to ensnare children for life, belief in Santa is part of a learning process in which children eventually find out that there are going to be many disappointments as they travel life’s highway. It can be tough to find out that something you used to believe is just wrong, but that’s the way it is, and it’s a useful learning experience.

Both the religious and, obviously, some sceptics should stop to consider that young children don’t care about religion or scepticism. Offer a child the option of a religious ritual, a logic puzzle to solve or a new toy to play with, what will a child do? In my experience, a child will go for the toy, haul it out of the box – and then pretend the box it came in is a ship, or a plane or anything else: so often, the cardboard box is more interesting than its contents, and the child’s imagination takes it on a journey that we, as adults, just shake our heads at in wonderment. (Why didn’t we save a lot of money by just getting a cardboard in the first place?)

But what about those bedtime stories about witches and wizards and princesses held hostage in castles and everything else that isn’t real? Oh, come on. Bedtime stories are a child’s introduction to literature. Like Santa, we don’t expect a child to spend its life believing that nonsense, we expect a child to develop an appreciation of literature, art, music, drama and also develop the critical ability to tell the difference between what is real and what is not. All of those things are used as a vehicle to express and critically examine what can be called “the human condition,” understandable to other humans who can discern reality from fantasy, but also recognise the basic truths about life that talented writers, dramatists, musicians and even comedians can express in a way that a thinking person can ponder in a meaningful way. I think I could argue that the most important experience of any child’s life is its introduction to its own existence through bedtime stories, and yes, even its early belief in Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

At least a child can tell you he or she has evidence for the existence of Santa: the presents are there on Christmas Day! Eventually, though, a child can be guided to think rationally without spoiling what is, after all, the amazing and wonderful universe we inhabit. For me, the experience of a magnificent sunset loses none of its beauty by knowing that photons formed in the heart of the Sun spend a million years getting to its surface and only then travel across space for about eight minutes and then through our atmosphere to be diffracted into a range of colours, obeying the laws of physics. Some people are satisfied to be ignorant by explaining sunsets and everything else they don’t understand with the words, “God did it.” It’s an explanation that explains nothing at all, and a lot of adults are happy to not know things, although they seem to think that a non-explanation that relies on a non-existent  deity is sufficient. Those adults can never outgrow their superstitions, and are hardly in any position to complain that children should not believe in a Santa that has no more of an objective existence than any man-made gods.

Our children deserve to have their innocence; they are not really born as sinners, or as ready-made members of any religion – they are a completely new person who has to take a long time to work out what this new world is that they have been born into. Parents have a duty to guide their children as they grow up, hopefully teaching them to be rational and responsible people in their own right, ready to produce the next generation of humanity. A child’s belief in Santa is a part of its learning experience, an experience that should be enjoyable but at the same time can be let go of as it develops intellectual maturity. Religion and other superstitions are what holds back human potential. If only adults had learned to shake off their beliefs in various deities and superstitions as easily as children shake off and come to terms with the non-existence of Santa, we could now be heading for the stars.

But that is still a long time in the future, I think. Not because children believe in Santa, but because so many adults still believe in gods.

The Bad Thinking Blog Says: Long live Santa.

Let kids enjoy themselves; they have plenty of time to come to terms with reality – and surely a lot of them will do just that.

The Myth Of The Psychic Disclaimer

You might have noticed that “psychics” advertise their shows (in the UK, anyway) with a disclaimer, the wording of which will usually say that the performance you are paying to see is “for entertainment only,” and should be regarded as “an experiment,” because the nature of the presentation “is considered controversial by some.”

Such a disclaimer for psychics is quite new, and has only been common since the Fraudulent Mediums Act of 1951 was repealed. Since then, psychics have to be wary of The Consumer Protection From Unfair Trading Regulations 2008, which puts psychics in the same category as double glazing salesmen and any other trader. In short, the claims made by the person concerned should be fair, honest, truthful, etc. If you are paying money for goods or services, you are entitled to get what you pay for.

Although some disclaimers in business are fair, in that they give customers honest information, some can be unfair and possibly illegal. A car servicing business, for example, that crashes your car cannot escape its obligation to take reasonable care of your property by having a notice on display saying that they do not accept responsibility for any damage they cause.

When it comes to psychics, I have to ask myself: if they really can contact the dead, why do they need a disclaimer anyway? Surely you would think something was wrong if your dentist had a notice in his surgery informing you that your scheduled root canal surgery is “experimental” and “purely for entertainment.”  No, you expect him or her to be suitably qualified and experienced, and not relying on disclaimers. He is already fully trained and regulated by a professional body that exists to maintain professional standards.

That’s not the case with psychics, not least because no one has ever proven the existence of an afterlife, much less the idea that the dead can communicate with the living. Psychics do not have to prove their alleged abilities to an official regulatory or professional body (there aren’t any of course), so the only protection ordinary consumers have is through the law.

But let’s be clear about something here – although some psychics claim that they are required to display a disclaimer because of “the law” or “the regulations,” there is no such requirement at all:

Psychics are not required by law to have a disclaimer.

The purpose of a psychic’s disclaimer is to protect that psychic from being prosecuted for providing a service that is not real (even if a psychic honestly believes they can contact “the other side”). By saying that a disclaimer is displayed because of the regulations or the law, they give the false impression that they have no choice legally but to have a disclaimer. I’m finding it more and more common that supporters of psychics do believe that they have no choice in the matter. “Psychics have a disclaimer because that’s the law,” is a phrase I am hearing more often nowadays, but  it is not true.  

No psychic has a legal obligation to display a disclaimer of any kind regarding their claimed abilities, any more than a heart transplant surgeon has to have a disclaimer in the operating theatre telling his patients they are there “for entertainment purposes only.”

A psychic cannot be prosecuted for “Failure to have a disclaimer.”  

No, I don’t buy it. The reality is that if psychics didn’t bother with their disclaimers, then there would likely be a flood of complaints to consumer protection departments around the country. They would be required to prove their claims or be prosecuted, but as we all know, there isn’t a psychic in the world who has ever proven they have powers over and above the power of wishful thinking. I don’t think a Trading Standards officer, or a court of law, is going to be converted to a belief in the paranormal by a psychic,under oath, gushing the usual, “I’m getting a “J” or a “J – sounding” name; does that mean anything to you?”

It’s quite simple, really, a genuine psychic would have no need for any disclaimers, yet they use them as a shield to protect themselves from prosecution because they know that without it they would be facing fraud charges in a court of law – and that, I think, is the only predictive power they have (which doesn’t need any paranormal ability at all).

My own opinion is that any psychic who displays a disclaimer is also someone who admits that they know they could not pass an objective test of their professed paranormal abilities. The famous psychics almost always refuse the many challenges that are out there to be objectively tested; the few who have, have failed and then vanished into obscurity; some lesser-known psychics have failed such testing and then later rationalised their way out of their failures but are still in business, and some unknowns have tried to beat the statistical odds and failed miserably but without having anything to lose by trying.

How nice it would be if a psychic’s disclaimer could say something like:

This show is for entertainment purposes only, and I’m telling you that because if I didn’t,  I could be prosecuted, fined, possibly jailed and be shown to be a complete and utter fraud who has been demonstrated to be a heartless conman/woman who has no scruples about ripping off gullible (and often very vulnerable) people without compunction and worse than that, I could lose a lucrative income because of it even though I think that I might be genuine in my belief that I can communicate with the dead, but if I’m not a fraudster then I am at least just a deluded but well-meaning person who thinks I can put you in touch with your deceased loved ones, which gives me genuine satisfaction as I think about it when I drive back to my luxury home in my luxury car, paid for by you, my followers, some of whom have paid money you can’t really afford, to hear me tell you, in all honesty on my part, that I really believe I got the letter “J” and it was meant just for you.

Please note: no one claiming to have psychic abilities has ever passed an objective, scientific test of their claimed paranormal powers (including me) and I refuse to undertake any such test, so if I give you statements from your deceased loved ones that contradict what you know about them, then keep in mind the fact that you have already been told that you are here to be entertained, not that you will be given accurate information from the “other side” (whatever your own interpretation of that means, but that’s up to you and has nothing to do with me).

If psychics are real, there is no need for a disclaimer, and there is certainly no legal requirement for those people to use one if they can really do the paranormal feats they claim. So why do they use them?

If there really were a law that insisted that psychics, mediums and all the rest of them had to have some kind of notice presented at their shows, I think it should read something like:

No one who claims to have psychic abilities has ever proven that their claims are real; there are, however, many purported psychics who have been demonstrated to have been frauds, and some of those have been jailed because they have defrauded innocent people. You are paying money to see someone who claims to be able to put you in touch with your deceased relatives, but who has not proven their so-called paranormal abilities in any objective sense. If you are dissatisfied with the service you have paid for, please telephone [the number of the local Trading Standards office] who will be happy to take up your complaint on your behalf. You might be entitled to substantial compensation after the subsequent legal proceedings.

That’s more like it. That’s what I call consumer protection! And even better than that, not a single psychic has made any comments on this post before it went live. How do you explain that? Eh? Eh?

To put it bluntly, if the paranormal were real then it would be an accepted part of science, regulated in the same way as science-based medicine is recognised. Psychics would have to undergo rigorous training followed by stringent exams, after which they would be licensed to practise by an accredited regulatory body that would constantly monitor their performance (not their “performances,” maybe). Their right to continue working would be dependent on their tested and proven ability, not a disclaimer.

Some people, unfortunately, make life-changing and sometimes personally destructive decisions based on what they are told by some psychics. If a doctor is negligent and causes harm, then there is at least some recourse to be had through the doctor’s professional body, and sometimes a doctor could be prosecuted for malpractice – maybe even jailed for it for disregarding his training and legal obligations to his patients.

That’s not the case with psychics. No training, no exams, no accreditation, no accredited professional body, no accountability, no responsibility, but lots and lots of money to be made. If you come to harm by following any advice given to you by a stage psychic, just remember that the advice they gave you that you followed was provided as part of a stage show you attended in which you implicitly agreed to absolve the psychic from all personal responsibility whatsoever.

Nice work if you can get it –  just display a disclaimer and the law can’t touch you.

Maybe it’s time for a new campaign – a campaign to make it illegal for anyone to make money from their claim to be a psychic unless they prove they can do what they say they can do. You can’t set yourself up as a doctor, gas fitter, lawyer or a host of other professionals without validation, so I think it’s about time the same thing applied to anyone who claims to talk to the dead (and get them to talk back, of course). And – like any other real professional person – no disclaimers allowed.

___________________________

Bad Thinking Disclaimer – The advice given on this blog is based on logic and rational thinking. If you disagree with anything posted here, then you are probably wrong. Read this blog at your own risk. The author accepts full responsibility for any reader who, after studying its contents, converts from Bad Thinking to rational thinking.

One last thought: it’s OK to ridicule something that happens to be ridiculous. I found this illustration on Twitter; unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a way to find its origins so I can’t offer full credit. Nevertheless, it’s so funny I’ll republish it here and see if the author wants to be credited, which I don’t mind, of course. (I think it was meant for as wide a publication as possible anyway.)

IMG_20141028_180031

 

Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

I got a sudden upsurge of traffic on the blog a couple of weeks ago after my last post. Mike Hallowell’s article claimed that a Neanderthal had been shot dead by time-travelling hunters using modern firearms. The article was picked up for criticism elsewhere, here, for example, so it obviously made an impression.

Since then, Mike has published a follow up article in the Shields Gazette, but rather than accepting that he made several factual errors and had fallen into various logical fallacies he has, in fact, dug himself deeper into a factual and logical hole. Let’s have a look.

The title of his article doesn’t start things off very well. It says,

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

If something is unexplained, then it is unexplained. The only truth about the unexplained is that it is just that. What is the alternative? Maybe the usual, “We don’t know what this is, therefore aliens.” (Occam’s razor would come in useful there, and as it happens I am already busy drafting a post on that very subject.)

Mike starts his article with the statement (I have added bold for emphasis, and my comments are in square brackets):

MY recent article about an ancient animal skull and a human one which appeared to have a bullet holes in them created quite a bit of interest; more than any other column of mine this year, in fact.

That’s not just misleading but flat out wrong, because he stated specifically that it was a Neanderthal; there was no mention of a human being as the subject of the story. (I know from experience that Mike Hallowell will probably now accuse me of accusing him of being a liar, so I will make this as clear as I can for him: I am not claiming that Mike Hallowell is lying, I am claiming that he is contradicting himself; I have provided the links, and even if those Gazette articles mysteriously disappear for any reason, I also have copies of them that I can produce later.) He said in his previous article:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Not in Africa anyway, at all.]

And:

As there were no radial fractures on the Neanderthal skull, it was unanimously concluded that the projectile must have had a far, far greater velocity than an arrow or spear. [Concluded by whom? Mike doesn’t say, so it’s not going to be easy for any (qualified) researcher or anyone else to follow up.]

As I pointed out in my previous post, the skull in question is neither human nor Neanderthal, although it is probably an ancestor of both. Although Mike said in his original article that the skull was Neanderthal, he now says he was writing about a human skull. (Pick the bones out of that. (as it were))

Mike’s response to those who pointed out to him that Neanderthals did not live in Africa is:

Really? And they know this how, I wonder? Absence of evidence is not absence of evidence. It is likely that Neanderthals did inhabit parts of Africa. [I think Mike means “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” Carl Sagan’s famous quote.]

No, the absence of evidence of any Neanderthals in Africa indicates it is unlikely they lived there, and almost certainly did not. In any case, this is a red herring – the skull referred to in the original story is definitely not a Neanderthal, despite Mike’s original claim, and the main question (perhaps) is whether it was shot at all, never mind whether time-travellers did it with a modern firearm.

Mike says that “even if” the existence of Neanderthals in Africa is unlikely, he says that the absence of evidence doesn’t mean they didn’t live there, just that “…they may not have.” He doesn’t see the need for a positive claim to have positive supporting evidence before it can be taken seriously. That is basically the appeal to ignorance – the idea (whether stated explicitly or implicitly) that if a claim cannot be proven false, then by default it should be accepted or at least be given serious consideration. Then again, no one has found kangaroo fossils in Africa, so should we accept the possibility they evolved there with no evidence for that either? They haven’t found polar bear fossils in Antarctica; what should we make of that? It doesn’t prove they weren’t there, after all.

Mike reckons that sceptics are most upset at the idea that ancient people might have developed technology even more advanced than our own. He asks:

On what logical basis can we say that?

The logical basis is called induction. Archaeology and palaeontology have discovered tools and other artefacts that are associated with mankind’s evolutionary development, from stone axes to more advanced technology through the ages. Nothing equivalent to modern power tools, computers or other technology has ever been found at ancient sites.

Mike says it is extreme arrogance to suggest that no ancient peoples were our equals when it comes to “…their understanding of the sciences”. There are a number of links in the article, but good luck trying to get through to them. For me, all but one went to a “page not found” link, and the one I did get through to is nothing but the usual sensationalist and highly speculative rubbish that has been repeatedly debunked. And no, even if you can find the video of some astronauts claiming UFOs are real (and there is no shortage of them on Youtube), the number of people making an unsubstantiated claim does not make such a claim true. That’s the appeal to popularity – also a logical fallacy. It doesn’t matter how many people make a claim, it is of little use without corroboration.

(I’ll add a note here about that. A constant refrain from the woo people is that eyewitness testimony is allowed in a court of law, so it should also be “admissible” as evidence of paranormal claims. What they seem to be unaware of is that such testimony in court is subject to cross examination, and is still considered weak at best if there is no corroboration; if sufficient doubt is raised in the minds of a jury, then a defendant must be found to be not guilty, and a Crown Court Judge will tell a jury that that is the law. Sceptics also have their doubts when a paranormal claim is made without testable evidence to back it up.)

Mike then bemoans the fact that sceptics hold science in such high regard. He wants to know why “supposedly intelligent people” deny his claims. He says:

The answer lies in the obsession that some sceptics have with insisting that scientific testing, experimentation and observation are the only reliable means of establishing the veracity of something.

Well, when you can pick and choose your own criteria for establishing truth, and ignore completely such things as multiple eyewitness testimony, you’re on a pretty safe bet, of course.

Whether Mike likes it or not, science is the best method we have for finding out about the universe we live in. A subjective assessment of claims is worthless if you are asserting that a claim is an objective fact. It is the paranormal fraternity who pick and choose their own criteria for “establishing truth,” but they have to be anti-science because science requires testable evidence of any claim made – eye witness testimony is not scientific.

And:

So what do you do with those pesky eyewitnesses who insist they’ve seen things you don’t want to believe in?

Maybe accept that they have just been “seeing things”? Mike believes that sceptics respond with character assassination and various ad hominem attacks, but he does not accept that in fact the various claims made by  paranormal proponents are rejected because of a lack of credible evidence to support them.

He doesn’t help his argument by stating that there are various astronauts who make public claims that aliens are here. As he puts it:

They’re either outrageous liars, or they’re telling the truth, I’d venture.

That fallacy is called a false dichotomy – offering only two alternatives when there are others. Perhaps those witnesses are delusional, or maybe they have been given false information and they truly believe it. I can think of other possibilities, but Mike thinks they should be believed because he sees “…no reason for them to fib.”

Paranormal buffs like Mike criticise science, commonly saying things like, “science is always changing its mind about things.” But look at it this way: someone claims that a Neanderthal skull has a bullet hole and the force of the shot destroyed the opposite side of the skull. That’s a testable claim because the skull exists and can be examined.

Scientific examination of the skull reveals that it is not that of a Neanderthal anyway. It turns out that the “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, so the individual did not die from the wound. Evidence also suggests that it may have been caused by an infection in the overlying tissue. And, despite what he said, the opposite side of the skull is intact, and definitely not showing signs of a bullet’s exit wound.

All of that has been pointed out to Mike Hallowell, but not only will he not admit that he got it wrong, he defends his original article with self-contradictory statements and logical fallacies, and criticises science – the very discipline that could have upheld his claim if only it were true.

So it turns out that the skull in question is not a Neanderthal and it wasn’t shot dead by time travellers using a modern firearm. That’s the truth and yes, sceptics can handle it. There was nothing paranormal to explain n the first place.

This Is Getting Tedious

untitledThis post is fairly important to me, because I am allowing Mike Hallowell, who has, in the past, had comments I have made elsewhere about his paranormal and supernatural claims on the internet removed under the threat of legal action, the space to speak his own mind, uncensored, on my own blog. I believe in free speech, and I think that the way to counter a bad argument is with a better argument, not legal thuggery or any kind of threat or intimidation.

My last post detailed an actual weird experience I had that many other people would have assumed to be an actual encounter with a UFO (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy, for the dyslexic). But it turned out to be something more mundane; not the sort of thing a UFO “expert” wants to hear, of course, because rational explanations for extraordinary events are taboo for the woo fraternity. For them, the comforting belief in their fantasy is preferable to the objective reality that is actually out there, and if some of them can make some money from writing cobblers they truly and honestly believe, then that is the way it just happens to be.

I admit I included an “in-joke,” not intended for the casual reader of this blog, but with meaning to only a very small audience of sceptics who are “in on it,” although Mike Hallowell, self-proclaimed expert in matters paranormal (who has never proven any of his paranormal claims to the standards required by science or ordinary rationality), noticed it. And it seems to have hit a nerve.

Mike is rather sensitive when his various claims are exposed to scrutiny. It’s not just me who criticises him, of course, it must be almost a full time occupation for him chasing his critics around the internet, but in the process failing to recall the old maxim, “When you’re in a hole, stop digging!” (This is a good place to start if you want a flavour of what I mean.)

And so it is here. Mike submitted a comment to that last post, but I did  not publish his comment on that particular thread because it was, first of all, completely off-topic and did not address the subject of the post at all. It’s standard practice on blogs for the host to reject comments that do not contribute anything to the subject at hand. I think that’s fair enough, but I think it’s also fair to let him have his say while I demonstrate to him where he is going wrong with his petty outburst. Hence this new post.

Also, the comment he submitted included some of the false allegations that he has made numerous times in the past and seems to be prepared to continue indefinitely into the future. I think the best thing to do here is to nail those allegations once and for all, and maybe, if necessary, create a new section on the Bad Thinking blog to do that. For me, it will be much easier to have a specific area where my refutations of Mike’s comments can be dealt with for readers by clicking on a ready-made link, rather than me composing a new reply to old tropes every time Mike decides to go ballistic.

Here is Mike’s comment in full, with my responses, with my answers in red Times New Roman.

Mike Hallowell commented on My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather …

“Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow?”

It doesn’t really matter, for in my experience you’ll have fibbers claiming you did this anyway even if you didn’t. I had an experience like this once, where a local” sceptic” made a similar claim about me. In fact, the accusation was drawn from an article written by another journalist entirely! You couldn’t make it up. The chap concerned claimed that I’d made such claims “many times” in one of my own columns. I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction. I still read through our lengthy correspondence on the matter with fondness every now and then when my faith in the ability of our species to think creatively starts to wane.

Obviously, I am the “local sceptic” Mike is referring to. But he is being disingenuous here, and did not include a link to the article he means, nor did he quote me accurately. I have said elsewhere that Mike claims to send evidence away for analysis, and which returns startling results. That was sarcasm with a bit of hyperbole that went over his head. I have not claimed that he has made that claim “in one of his columns,” but he certainly has claimed to have sent evidence “away for analysis” and he has claimed to have received “startling results.” But his claims are empty anyway because he consistently refuses to release any of these alleged results for public scrutiny.

The article by “another journalist entirely” can be found here: Is This The Face Of The Salon Ghost?. That article appeared on 6th March, 2009 – more than five years ago. It is clear that the reporter interviewed Mike, whom she describes as a “Gazette columnist and ghost buster,” and there are several quotes by him. She also says, “Mr Hallowell has sent the pictures off to be analysed, and an overnight vigil is to be organised to gather more evidence from the salon.” [Emphasis added] It appears to be a follow up article to this one about the same “haunted” salon published on 17th February 2009 (two prominent pieces of free publicity for a local business – not bad).

It is obvious that Mike must have said that to the reporter, even though it is not presented as a verbatim quote, and in any case it is standard journalistic practice to sometimes describe what someone has said without the need to put every single utterance into quotation marks. If Mike said to the reporter something like, “Oh, by the way, I’ve sent those snaps away to be analysed,” then reporting that he has said so is acceptable. At the end of the article, though, there is a direct quote from Mike: “Until they have been analysed further we can’t make any definite pronouncements…” Any reasonable interpretation of this article suggests that Mike Hallowell did indeed claim to have sent his snapshots away for analysis by some unnamed third party. (He did not say, “Until I have analysed…”)

Now here’s the problem: 1) Is Mike denying that he told the reporter that he has sent those pictures off for analysis? I have suggested to him in the past that if the reporter has misquoted him, or (even worse) just made it up (a serious ethical breach), then he should make a formal complaint to the Shields Gazette and demand a retraction and an apology. He could even threaten to sue them if they refuse to do so (he regularly threatens legal action against his critics, so this should be no different). If he is willing to let the article stand, then he is, by implication, accepting that it is a fair account of what he actually said. Assuming that The Shields Gazette and Mike Hallowell (freelance Gazette columnist paid money by that newspaper) are honest and dispassionate seekers and reporters of the truth, then there is no danger that The Gazette will refuse his request to retract or amend that article, nor will they drop his column if he wants to threaten them with such legal action to ensure that his personal integrity is maintained.

Then again, I’m a sceptic; I shouldn’t make assumptions, but you can if you want to.

Another problem: 2) I’m not aware of anyone – myself included – accusing Mike of writing that article. Where did that come from? There is no dispute that it was written by someone else. And so what? It is completely irrelevant. Also, I have not been able to find a follow-up article by the same reporter to tell us the results of the analysis of those photos that Mike told her he was sending away for that purpose, and I am also unable to find anything about them published by Mike himself. As I have also said in the past, when Mike says he has sent stuff away for analysis, no one, in my opinion, should be expecting to hear anything about them again. But you never know; after all this time the results of that analysis might be in now, so perhaps Mike will publicise it. (It is five years later, though, so personally I don’t really expect to hear anything about it again.)

And has Mike ever claimed to have had “startling results” returned from evidence that he has actually claimed to have sent away for analysis? Yes, indeed, although it’s not at all clear to me why this is such an important point to him – and it clearly is, because every time I refute it, he comes back with the same old trope as if it were the first time it had ever been brought up.

But here’s something sneaky: Mike challenged me some time ago on someone else’s blog to prove that he had ever made such a claim. I was happy to oblige, and I provided a link to his own website where it was stated that some audio recordings from one of his poltergeist investigations had been subject to analysis, and had returned, he claimed, startling results He says (above), “I challenged him to show me just one example, but he couldn’t, of course, as his accusation was complete fiction.” That is a false claim.by Mike. He challenged me to prove claims I made, even offering to pay £30.00 to charity if I did so. I did, but he decided that I did not and he therefore did not pay up. (The blog I am referring to is owned by my sceptical friend Brian, who has allowed me to identify him as the blogger who removed my comments under legal threat against him, rather than Mike Hallowell defeating me through logical argument. Although Brian focuses mostly on local political issues that might not be of much interest to people outside of South Shields, he is also a sceptic with an often  (Occam’s) razor-sharp insight into the world of woo. He and I discussed Mike Hallowell’s legal threat before he removed my comments, which he did with my agreement. But those comments of mine have been merely “unmodified.” They are still there in cyberspace and might be reinstated in light of the new Defamation Act introduced on 1st January this year. (The link I have given, if anyone is hardy enough to try to wade through it all, will not make an awful lot of sense in some places. With some of my comments removed at this time it seems a bit disjointed. When I contributed my comments, it was before I started my own blog, and I used to comment in various places under my old handle, “the skeptic.” After comments I made on the Shields Gazette website about the same article in the above link were removed, comments on Brian’s blog were removed under legal threat. That was the reason I started my own blog – my comments were taken down from Mike Hallowell’s newspaper column comments section for no good reason, and then other comments of mine were removed from someone else’s private domain through bogus legal threats. I decided to start my own blog where Mike Hallowell himself will not be censored (although he does that to others with threats of legal action in lieu of evidence to support his anti-scientific claims), and I will not be bullied into removing fair criticism of the unsubstantiated claims of uneducated people who claim expertise in subjects for which they have neither accredited training nor qualifications.) And before Mike Hallowell starts whining (again) that he had nothing to do with the removal of my comments from the Gazette website, I never did accuse him of doing so; it is just as likely that the Gazette removed them because they realised that my comments showed up their columnist as an ignoramus. Perhaps one might even consider the possibility that the technologically-savvy South Shields Poltergeist did it. Can anyone disprove a claim like that? No? It must be true, then, by Mike Hallowell’s own “logic” – the argument to ignorance – see below)

But did any of that resolve the issue? No, it didn’t, because after I posted the link, the words he complained about were changed on his website from “startling results” to “extremely interesting results.” Some people might think that that change is relatively minor and doesn’t make a great difference to the overall meaning, but it was obviously important to Mike, who has never let it drop. But the point is, when I rose to his challenge to show where he had ever said that evidence he had had analysed returned startling results, he changed the very words that would confirm what I had said.

Here are the before and after screenshots from his own website:

1_Before

1_After

Even in his magnum opus (The widely panned The South Shields Poltergeist) he says clearly (and get this if you want a laugh) that he sent  a copy of the alleged poltergeist’s handwriting away to a graphologist for, yes, analysis. (There is no copy of the graphologist’s analysis published, either. Startling results? Extremely interesting results? Mike has said before that he doesn’t feel the need to prove anything to anyone, so don’t expect too much.) And it’s pretty much the same with two “well qualified nurses” in the book who supposedly confirmed that the alleged injuries caused to one of the central characters in the same book must have been paranormal in origin. You might not be surprised to learn that these unnamed nurses, who did not give written testimony in the book as other witnesses did, have now transformed into the more vague, but still anonymous, “medical personnel.”

Hallowell snip 02

“The footage was reviewed by medical personnel experienced in treating such wounds and they stated categorically that it would have been absolutely impossible for such wounds to disappear in such a short space of time.”

Anyone who has seen this footage will know that it is poorly lit and of very poor quality; whatever is happening is indistinct at best, but “experienced nurses” or “medical personnel” had no problem with it. The footage that was on the internet shows, maybe, with a bit of imagination, some slight marks on the person’s back, but the “medical personnel”  presumably must have been able to discern the victim’s back being “slashed to ribbons,” as Mike puts it in the book. There’s not much chance of ever viewing it again, though, if you want to form an opinion of your own. After much criticism and laughter, Mike had it removed from the internet to save his blushes to protect his copyright.

Mike will probably want to come back on these points about his alleged book, but I hope he gives his underling colleague and co-author, Darren Ritson, permission to join in.

On a different note, I’d like to raise a couple of points about the following comment you made:

“The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.”

You claim (in opposition to many astronauts, pilots, police officers, astronomers, military personnel, scientists and others) that, “The evidence for UFOs…is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts.” All those people who claim to have seen the hard evidence must be lying, I suppose. [Mike can suppose that if he wants to, but that is not my position on the matter. In any case, calling upon the status of those alleged witnesses is a fallacy called the appeal to authority.]

People like Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Major Gordon Cooper and others have reached their conclusion that UFOs exist because they have seen the hard evidence. [No, those astronauts have claimed to have seen the hard evidence. They have not produced it.] You have reached your conclusion that they do not exist based on a perceived absence of evidence when you are in no position to know. [I know that hard evidence of UFOs is not in the public domain. It would be pretty big news if it was.] I’m pretty sure I’m on safe ground when I say that their position is far more logical than yours. [No, it is illogical for people to believe extraordinary claims on nothing more than hearsay – whoever it might be who makes those extraordinary claims.]

Are all the expert witnesses lying, deluded or insane? [Perhaps some of them are; others are enjoying a lucrative income from the lecture circuit, writing Aliensabsurd books and articles and taking part in stupid TV programmes about UFOs, “ancient aliens,” and other assorted nonsense, also without producing a shred of testable evidence. They have motivation to be less than critical about the claims they make, even if they are sincere about it. Mike could have offered another possibility – are they, like many other people, merely susceptible to misinterpreting what they have experienced?] Many have said that they are prepared to testify before Congress regarding what they know at great risk to their careers. [I’d like to see it happen. They would be required to produce evidence to support their claims, but I think it’s unlikely that the American Congress wants to appear to the world to be giving a platform to a bunch of cranks.] The world awaits your judgement on the matter, although I think we already have a good idea what it might be. You once argued that witnesses like Dr. Mitchell could have been fed some rather dodgy info supporting the existence of UFOs to cover up a secret government project. [No, I didn’t “argue” that the US government was feeding “dodgy info” to anyone, I suggested that the US government might just not discourage people from thinking they have seen UFOs if they have actually witnessed top secret testing of new military projects. The military might even encourage people to maintain their false beliefs, although I think it is going a bit too far to assume they are actively “feeding” anyone “dodgy” information.] Not impossible in essence, but certainly impossible when one takes the evidence provided by Dr. Mitchell in its entirety; something you signally failed to do, if you recall, when you last tried to pour cold water on his testimony. [Mitchell’s testimony “in its entirety” is anecdotal, and not proof of anything: all talk, no substance.]

When Major Cooper testified before the UN to the existence of UFOs and their extraterrestrial occupants, was he fibbing too? [I don’t know. Did they believe him and then issue any kind of document, judgement or directive to confirm what he was claiming? Are his claims now official UN policy adopted and implemented by member countries? I didn’t see it if they did, and it is certainly the kind of thing the UFO people would publicise. I haven’t seen that, either.] Just what do you say to a veteran astronaut who states, “For many years I have lived with a secret…a secrecy imposed on all specialists in astronautics. I can now reveal that every day, in the USA, our radar instruments capture objects of form and composition unknown to us. And there are thousands of witness reports and a quantity of documents to prove this, but nobody wants to make them public. Why? Because authority is afraid that people may think of God knows what kind of horrible invaders. So the password still is: We have to avoid panic by all means”? [I think I would say something like, “Wow! That’s incredible! Show me all that evidence! (that you haven’t shown to anyone else).” And I might also say something like, “You, like all other military personnel of your rank, are entrusted with state secrets that you now want to blab about? Where I come from, that would be called treason. You are prepared to betray your military and your country? OK, then, give me all the documentation and I will pass it on to The Guardian newspaper while you make your escape to Russia and join your fellow countryman Edward Snowden, who also gave the game away (with incontrovertible evidence of his claims about the American government’s surveillance of not only its own citizens, but the citizens of countries all over the world.). Become a fugitive in the name of openness and truth and I will support you on my own blog. Oh, and pick up a million dollars from James Randi before you leave – it might come in handy.”]

Was Major Cooper lying when he said that a condition of secrecy had been imposed upon specialists in the field of astronautics? [Hardly; the Americans (and every other government) usually don’t want foreign powers to know what they are up to, so secrets “in the field of” just about anything is pretty normal. Non-governmental organisations (businesses for example) also require secrecy from some of their staff.] And why would such secrecy be imposed if these thousands of sightings were simply misattributions? [It might be because if the US government exposed the stuff that is nonsense, then what is left is (dare I say it) the truth – the very thing they don’t want people to know about, things like new military technology that has nothing to do with alleged aliens.] Why would US Navy witnesses with extremely high security clearance levels claim that huge a UFO had emerged from the sea in front of USN vessels before flying off at incredible speed? [It depends what is in it for them. Decades in jail, maybe, for giving away state secrets, or making money on the UFO circuit talking nonsense to a gullible audience, knowing that they are not in danger of prosecution because they are not giving anything away at all.]  Are they lying too? [I didn’t suggest that anyone was lying; they might be shrewd. Mike Hallowell has, in the past, said that he thinks it is the interpretation of evidence that makes a difference. Those shrewd navy witnesses might have an interpretation that just happens to have a superficial plausibility, acceptable to the believers even if their interpretation of the alleged evidence contradicts common sense, science, logic and reality in general.]

The only argument you have to fall back on is the old canard that we can’t rely solely on eyewitness testimony without “hard evidence”. [Eye witness testimony is often wrong; that is why it needs to be backed up with “hard evidence.” Mike once used a courtroom analogy with regard to personal testimony, but if he were falsely accused of, say, committing a murder, would he think it fair if he were convicted on the say-so of a couple of high-ranking, but mistaken, military personnel? He wouldn’t be able to prove them wrong; in that case I think he might suddenly want to rethink his strongly held belief in capital punishment.] The problem is that hundreds of professional people are now openly claiming to have seen just such evidence, which forces you into the uncomfortable position of having to argue that although you may not have seen the evidence yourself, they are either all making it up or are mistaken. [Here are two logical fallacies in one sentence: the first is the fallacy called the appeal to popularity, and the other is called a false dichotomy.  The truth value of a claim is not determined by how many people believe it, and Mike offers only two possible alternatives regarding why the claims have been made, but there are other possibilities.] How can you “mistakenly” see a UFO in a USAF hangar? [If it is Unidentified, how can you know what it is? Could it actually be a new and very secret military project? What does an actual alien space ship look like? (Hint: it probably doesn’t look like a blurred smudge (BS) – the typical “evidence” produced on photographs and film/video that the UFO buffs seem to have orgasms over.) But go ahead and show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” be associated with secret governmental projects, as was Dr. Mitchell, in which the hard evidence is examined and evaluated? [He says he was; show the evidence.] How can you “mistakenly” film a UFO hovering over a military base and then have it confiscated by the security services the next day? [It’s easy to make a claim. Show the evidence.] Were they all dreaming? You can deny the eyewitness testimony all you want, but to pit yourself against such a large array of respected experts in so many different fields is bordering on the bizarre. [No, believing big claims with no evidence is what is bizarre (and in this case is still the fallacious appeal to popularity and the appeal to authority). In fact, it is irrational.] Your very own Dr. Carl Sagan once said, quite rightly, that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”. Your stance flies in the face of this maxim, but with you it’s worse; you don’t even have any evidence that the evidence is absent! [Carl Sagan, one of the most influential scientists and sceptics of the 20th century, is described in this article by Mike Hallowell as being “not very rational.” So it’s interesting that Mike quotes him here to try to support his case. But the fact is the burden of proof is on the person making a claim. Absence of evidence is still absence of evidence. The only people who can provide the evidence are those who claim to have it. To paraphrase the late Christopher Hitchens, “Assert something without evidence, and I can dismiss it without evidence.”] Here are two hours of testimony from those who have indeed seen the evidence. Perhaps you’d like to tell us whether these are all lying or deluded too: [Yes, testimony. I’m not going to waste two hours watching talking heads unless they are presenting testable evidence. I’ve done that many times in the past; if this is just “personal testimony,” it is not of much value.]

http://www.youtube.com/watchfeature=player_detailpage&v=7vyVe-6YdUk#t=549

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that you don’t have to believe in the ET hypothesis. But what you really need to do is at least take a stance of detachment and withhold judgement considering the quality of the witness testimony arraigned against you. [There is no “quality” witness testimony arraigned against me. Just witness testimony for which there is no testable or confirmable evidence to support it. Testimony is not the same as proof. The woo brigade would like nothing better than for sceptics to “withhold judgement,” in other words, “shut up.”]

I really do find your stance quite intriguing, and would like to ask you on what evidence you make this assumption. I mean, unless you personally visit every building on the face of the planet large enough to house such an object you really wouldn’t know, would you? [The same argument applies to Mike, unless he has personally visited every possible location where an ASFAG (Alien Spaceship From Another Galaxy) might be hidden. I don’t, however, claim to “know,” I claim to doubt.] It doesn’t seem very scientific to me to deny the existence of something just because you haven’t personally seen the proof. [Mike Hallowell is a science denier anyway, but has Mike personally seen the proof? If so, then like his heroes, he has not presented it. To be fair, Mike does not claim to have had the same access to secret information as he thinks some astronauts have had, he just believes what they say, and that’s good enough for him. His readers should just believe him, in the same way he just believes what some astronauts say, and what other writers on the subject say they say. I do not believe that this planet is being visited by space aliens. However, I hold that opinion tentatively and if anyone can prove their claims then I will accept it. In the meantime, the probability that aliens are here is vanishingly small, given the fact that we still have only claims but no tangible evidence.] Wouldn’t a truly objective person withhold judgement on the matter rather than take a sceptical standpoint based on nothing more than a personal opinion? [What – as opposed to someone believing extraordinary claims based on nothing more than their own personal opinion formed from hearsay with no confirmable evidence to support it?]

Please explain to the world just how you KNOW that there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs other than anecdotal accounts. [I don’t claim to KNOW there is no evidence for the existence of UFOs (if that means extraterrestrial vehicles) but I know that the only evidence I have ever come across is anecdotal, not testable or confirmable. The burden of proof is still on the person making the claim.] It’s no good arguing that no one has seen such evidence, for that would just be yet another wild assumption on your part too, wouldn’t it? [I’m not arguing that no one has seen it, but if they’ve seen it, they should show it. Making claims about evidence for UFOs is rather like making claims about evidence for poltergeists: those who make the claims but refuse to prove their claims come in for justifiable criticism. Refusal to show the evidence or just making excuses for not doing so makes the claimant look rather foolish – except to the believers, who keep them in business.] Again, how could you possibly know? You are essentially arguing that because you haven’t seen something then it can’t possibly exist. [This is a straw man fallacy. (I’ll do a new post on the subject.) I am not “essentially” arguing that something I have not seen cannot possibly exist. I’ve explained the straw man fallacy to Mike some time ago.] Is this how true sceptics condition themselves to think? [Sceptics try to think logically, not Mike’s distorted version of what he thinks they think.] I’d be delighted to see a step-by-step explanation in your blog as to how you reach a position of disbelief when you could not possibly have determined whether such evidence exists or not. [This logical fallacy is called the argument to ignorance. Mike’s implication is that if one can’t disprove a claim, then it should be accepted. In fact, if a claim cannot be disproved, that is no basis for assuming its veracity.] You chide bad thinking, so please enlighten us as to how you reached your conclusion by utilising good thinking. [What conclusion is Mike referring to? He posted his comment on a post where my “conclusion” was that an apparent UFO I saw turned out, after investigation, to be nothing more than an optical illusion. I explained it in detail in that post.]

Mike is a regular critic of sceptics, science and the scientific method, so he will no doubt be able to tell me where I went wrong when I perceived what initially seemed to be an alien spaceship taking off from out at sea but then investigated it further to find out what it actually was.

Maybe I should have sent my account to him for possible publication in his Wraithcrap column, and seen it published with this kind of analysis:

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/wraithscape/a-close-encounter-of-the-ufo-kind-1-6338120

Long story short: a fellow wakes up at 3.30 am and looks out of the window to see a saucer-shaped object; he gets his friend, who comes into the room and also sees it; it then shoots away at high speed. The fellow contacts Mike Hallowell thirty-odd years later, while it is still fresh in his memory, to tell him about it. Mike’s conclusion is:

“It was a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.”

An “expert” like Mike doesn’t, apparently, need to wonder how accurate a person’s memory of an event is more than thirty years later, nor how reliable that memory is from a person woken up in the middle of the night and still partially asleep. As Mike says:

“The question I would pose to skeptics is: On what basis should we disbelieve him – or for that matter, any of the other thousands of experients who have had similar encounters?”

It turns out you don’t even have to be a former astronaut to come out with a story that Mike will swallow believe, support and verify – at least to his own satisfaction. I could pose a question to Mike: how does he know that some of the tales he gets from his readers aren’t just made-up stories sent in to see if he would fall for it? (I’m sure it wouldn’t make any difference to him anyway; he writes up the drivel his fans send him and then trousers the cash for regurgitating it in the Shields Gazette and presumably other publications. You can probably read a version of that bilge in the next issue of UFO Wankfest Quarterly, or whatever).

For me, however, when I had a “UFO experience,” I decided to investigate it and found an answer that was consistently repeatable. What I found was an optical illusion, and in the light of that, there is no rational reason to believe that what I experienced was a UFO taking off from its secret underwater base.

I spent several weeks replicating what I found, also spending many hours doing so. But that’s a bit too sciencey for some people. I guess I could have saved my time and sent my initial observation off to Mike, just to see if he would publish it in the Shields Gazette. At first glance it certainly did look like “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control,” but in reality it was nothing of the sort. I don’t think Mike, in this instance at least, is going to contradict me, even if he can quite willingly publish outlandish claims from anyone else who sends him an uncorroborated claim that he, himself, did not witness, but which he can confidently validate as “a UFO, obviously mechanical in nature and under intelligent control.

At the end of the day, I still think it’s better to try to confirm or disprove things rather than take someone’s word for it. You look silly otherwise.

I’m bored now.

 

My Very Own UFO

One thing that frustrates me when the woo folks have a tale to tell, i.e., some claim of the paranormal that sounds rather fantastical but might be reported to have many witnesses, is the triumphant shout of “How do you explain that?”

It’s an absurd thing to say anyway, of course, because the burden of proof is on those who actually make a claim. I’m not going to waste my time trying to disprove the notion that the US government, say, has alien spaceships hidden in a secret hangar. There might well be former astronauts who make such a claim, but if you are willing to believe their claims on the grounds of who they are, rather than solid evidence (that they always fail to produce), then you are guilty of bad thinking.

The evidence for UFOs – Alien Spaceships From Another Galaxy (ASFAGs as I think they should be called) – is actually non-existent over and above anecdotal accounts. And anecdotes are not evidence. I know that some of the woo promoters insist that anecdotes in the form of personal testimony are allowed as evidence in a court of law, but so what? Personal testimony in court is not accepted at face value; it is going to be challenged and witnesses are going to be subjected to often harsh cross examination and possibly have their credibility destroyed in the light of opposing evidence or even proof. If a witness gives an alibi for a defendant but the defendant’s DNA, fingerprints, and so on are produced to refute that personal testimony, then I think the hard evidence is going to be more compelling than the anecdotal evidence.

What if a defendant’s alibi is that he could not have committed a particular crime because he had been abducted by aliens and he had a dozen witnesses to say they had seen him “beamed” aboard the aliens’ mother ship at the time  the alleged crime was committed? I would suggest that any such testimony would be thrown out because such a claim is absurd – although it wouldn’t be classed as absurd if the existence of aliens had already been established. Which it hasn’t.

But here’s a conundrum (for me, at least). I saw my own UFO (ASFAG?) and I can offer only an anecdotal account of the encounter I had. But if you will bear with me, see if you can follow the logic of my narrative.

The striking aspect of my story is that I experienced or witnessed for myself an event that I had often wondered about – witness accounts of UFO sightings where an alleged UFO travels at amazing speed and then suddenly turns at a 90 degree angle and shoots away at equally high speed. OK, it’s easy to criticise the usual blurry photographs purported to be UFOs. It’s easy to criticise UFO claims that have subsequently been debunked. It’s easy to look with a jaundiced eye at former astronauts who rely on their status rather than testable evidence for their UFO claims. But one recurring claim that always troubled me was the alleged 90 degree turn at high speed that often crops up. That’s not so easy to dismiss as a light in the sky that could be almost anything.

Anyway, the scenario was this: I live on the North East coast of England, and I regularly drive along a road that runs approximately parallel with the coast. The road itself is about 1.5 miles long between two main junctions, and at night is very dark except for about four pedestrian crossing points that each have a couple of street lamps on either side of the road. Apart from that, the entire road is just complete darkness for night time driving, and the use of headlights is essential. Although the road edges can be seen in the glow of one’s headlights, anything further than the far kerb is just complete blackness. The only occasional sign of life might be the lights from a ship out at sea. But this night, there was not even that.

This is a photograph of what can be seen in normal daylight, but keep in mind the fact that after sunset there is just complete blackness beyond the kerb you can see in the picture.

20131009_133827

The road itself is one I have driven along thousands of times in almost forty years of driving, at various times of the day and night. It is almost always an uneventful drive except for this particular night: from the corner of my eye I saw a vaguely orange light shoot straight up in the air, and as I turned to look at it, it turned at 90 degrees and shot away at high speed in the opposite direction from my own line of travel.

I saw this out in the blackness that would have had to be the sea, and although I wondered at first if it could have been a distress flare perhaps from a fishing boat in trouble, it was immediately obvious that a flare would not have done such a sharp turn and headed out of sight at such high speed. Even if there had been a heavy wind, I would have expected it to curve through the air, not turn and shoot off.

But just as I was pondering the improbability of me having discovered an underwater alien base, it happened again! Another light shot up in the air and again did a 90 degree turn, again shooting away into the distance. This was just getting too weird for a sceptic like me.

When I reached the end of the road, I turned the car around and headed back – obviously keeping a keen eye on the seaward side. But this time – nothing.

Never mind, once I had returned to the original junction, I set back off in the original direction I was headed (north). Again – nothing.

This was more than just a little bit irritating because (dare I say it?) I know what I saw. But to be honest, what I saw (twice) was a light shoot upwards, turn 90 degrees and then shoot away at apparently high speed. I’m not going to claim I saw an alien space ship. I still wanted to know what it was, however, and I was determined to at least try to solve this awkward riddle.

As I headed north for the third time, I realised that the time difference between my first and second sightings (maybe about eight seconds) was approximately the same time it took to travel between two of the pedestrian crossing areas with their attendant street lights.

I had noticed a correlation, but beware – any statistician can tell you that a correlation does not imply a causal link, although it’s true to say that if there is a causal link there will always be a correlation. So what next?

I did what any competent researcher does – I put together every salient fact I could think of and I tried to form a hypothesis that would explain what had happened.

The main facts were these:

  • It was a dark night.
  • The effect happened when I passed under street lights.
  • It was raining lightly.
  • My car window was partially open at the time of the sightings.
  • The local council had recently installed new lamp posts.

Given the fact that I have travelled the same route thousands of times over the best part of four decades, at all times of the day or night in all kinds of weather, one thing was different this time  – the new street lights. Could that have something to do with it?

Being the inquisitive person I am, someone who loves puzzles but hates mysteries, I really had to get to the bottom of this, and I drove back and forth along that stretch of road until I found what was at least a tentative answer. Maybe nine or ten times up and down the same road. But – Eureka! Here’s what happened that night, and over several following weeks of testing and retesting:

My habit, as I drive around town, is to drive with my window slightly open – just a gap of a couple of inches for a flow of fresh air. Even during light rain, that’s OK unless the rain is heavy enough to come into the car, in which case I drive with the window closed.

On this particular night, there was light rain and my window was slightly open as usual. If my memory was correct, then each time I had seen this mysterious UFO was just as I passed by one of the sets of street lights.

I also realised that the local council had recently been undertaking a programme of street light renewal. These particular lights were new and, unlike the old lights, are taller and the lights themselves are set at the top each lamp post rather than on an arm that extended over the road itself.

I wondered if it was possible that the angle of the lights in relation to the car window might be something to do with this strange phenomenon. So I drove back and forth until the exact effect happened again. And it turned out that with my window at a particular height, the effect could be reproduced, There was no end of UFOs that night. It seemed that the UFO effect was caused by light from the streetlights reflecting from the edge of the car window: one point of light travelling up the sloping lead edge of the window giving the impression of a light travelling vertically, and then travelling over the rising top of the window giving the impression of the light suddenly travelling horizontally.

Problem solved? Not quite.

Reproducing an experiment once or twice is hardly conclusive, so I repeated the drive a couple of nights later. Alas, nothing happened, even though I did the same run – back and forth – several times, and trying the window at different heights. Nothing.

Maybe the rain had something to do with it? I had to wait a week or two for more rain and set out again. This time – success! More UFOs!

And during the following weeks I did the same thing. Clear nights, rainy nights. On the clear nights nothing, whatever height I set the window. On very rainy nights, nothing, whatever the height of the window. But on nights with a light rain, and with the window set to a particular height, the effect of a UFO taking off vertically and shooting away horizontally could be easily reproduced.

I think I solved the problem: the effect was produced because of light rain forming a bead of water on the leading edge of the window, and that was where the light from the street lamps focused and reflected into my peripheral vision, causing what was nothing more than an optical illusion. When it happened, it was momentary and fleeting – but absolutely startling. If I had already been a believer in UFOs, I’m sure I would have been convinced that I had had a close encounter, and might possibly have contacted the press to make such a claim.

The reality is rather mundane: it all came down to a particular set of conditions that had to come together by chance. Consider what was involved:

  • New street lights that were taller than the previous lights.
  • The lamps attached to them were close in to the lamp posts rather than extended over the road.
  • There was a light rain.
  • My car window happened to be at a particular height.
  • The rain had formed a bead of water on the edge of the glass.
  • The light from the streetlights had been refracted through that bead of water as I passed by them.
  • The effect as it happened lasted only a very small fraction of a second.

At that moment, I really thought I had witnessed a light out at sea shoot vertically upwards and then turn at 90 degrees and shoot away.

I think most people would not have gone much further than the original observation, and perhaps some of them would be making  a song and dance about it. It is, after all, a staple of the UFO community – something strange is observed and – wait for it – it can’t be explained! Ta-Daaaaa! And as any believer can tell you, if it can’t be explained, then it must be [insert preferred woo here].

Yes, indeed, how do you explain that? Actually, you go out and investigate it.

I spent time over several weeks investigating this strange event, but I think it was worth it – at least to satisfy my own curiosity. Admittedly, my investigation into what happened doesn’t satisfy the criteria needed for publication in a scientific journal, but at least I followed some basic rules of research and I was able to eliminate some possible explanations until I came to a conclusion that is reasonable and is consistent with the known laws of physics (and optics, especially).

If only the promoters of the paranormal would do something similar in their everyday lives. It’s just too easy, however, to observe an event that appears anomalous and then just assume it is paranormal because it happens to fit neatly with existing beliefs.

Is there a moral to this story? Maybe. Believers in paranormal phenomena tend to accept claims of the paranormal at face value. A paranormal claim becomes a paranormal fact for them, and sceptical objections are dismissed as “just so stories” from nay-saying curmudgeons. The believers seem to be so committed to their beliefs, however, that possible explanations offered by sceptical critics must be swept away. Quite honestly, though, I still chuckle inwardly when I recall one of my correspondents calling me “deluded” for “not being broad minded enough” to believe. Quite. Silly me for preferring quantifiable reality to  unsubstantiated claims that no one can demonstrate to be fact.

As I said earlier, the claim of UFOs shooting in one direction and then turning at 90 degrees in an instant and flying off at equally high speed was something that puzzled me for some time. It’s not so easy to explain as just pointing out that a blurred smudge on an out of focus photograph is not proof of alien visitation – and of course the believers still think that the onus is somehow on sceptics to disprove paranormal claims rather than they themselves having any obligation to prove  the anti-scientific claims they promote.

The bottom line is this: I actually experienced a phenomenon that seemed unlikely, even though there are numerous eyewitness reports of “UFOs” doing high speed manoeuvres that seem to defy the laws of physics. It isn’t something for which a possible explanation is easily available. Even if you want to postulate an optical illusion of some kind, that’s not much to work on unless you can offer a plausible scenario. Without knowing the exact circumstances of any particular claim, you can’t really say much about it.

In my particular case, however, I can say with some confidence that what I experienced was, indeed, an optical illusion. It was an illusion that was so startling and real at the time that I was momentarily stunned, and in that moment I thought of other accounts I had read about from UFO believers, and I think I can understand why some people would think they had had an extraterrestrial encounter.

But, the question is this: if you have an unusual experience, should you assume an answer that fits your beliefs, or do you try to find out what is really going on?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: it would be cool if the existence of anything paranormal could be confirmed, and I would not object to it at all. But the confirmable evidence needs to be there. Prove that alien space ships are real, and even I will accept the possibility of alien abduction as a plausible alibi in a court of law.

Until then, I remain sceptical. In the case of UFOs claimed to be travelling at high speed and turning instantly at 90 degrees, I think the first question anyone should ask is, “Were there any reflective surfaces nearby?” Even reflections in a pair of spectacles might provide a possible answer to some alleged UFO sightings. It’s worth thinking about before assuming an answer for which there is no credible evidence.

Additional Note:

This is a genuine photograph I took when I was testing out my new smart phone thingy in January this year. This is the picture, with no “photoshopped” special effects added, no digital photo manipulation, just a cropped section of a picture that was recorded when I took the photo. I was looking at the moon, among other things, when this hove into view. If any UFO experts want to tell me what it is, I will be happy to publish all analyses.

20131014_231714

I have my own hypothesis, but should I leave it up to the UFO “experts” to decide? Should I send it off for “expert analysis” and see if there are any “startling results” to follow? Are there any local “photo analysts” that can help me?

I will post my own ideas about it in the comments in a couple of days.

Statistically Impossible? Probably Not

Paranormal proponents seem to have a thing about statistics. It’s a bit of a conundrum, actually, because they love to quote some research by some big name in parapsychology who has said that the chances of a particular psychic gaining a particular score in some test or other is in the billions to one against pure chance, and therefore telepathy or whatever must be real. At the same time, they obviously haven’t a clue what they are talking about – and just don’t understand the concepts they are trying to use to justify their belief in the paranormal.

Here’s an example. A couple of years ago I joined  a discussion on a pro paranormal blog where the author pointed to a small number of people in America who had won several lottery jackpots. The point he was trying to make was that because winning the lottery is such a long shot (one chance in almost 14 million in a six from forty nine draw) that the probability of winning two, three or even more jackpots is so unlikely that there must be something paranormal going on. Pure chance, for him, just doesn’t come in to it. His belief was that those winners must be attracting those wins in some paranormal way, even if they weren’t consciously aware of it.

Sometimes, the paranormal people will make a statement along the lines of, “This psychic scored a result in a scientific test that was so improbable that it is statistically impossible for it to be just a chance result.”

To which I can only reply, “No. You don’t know what you are talking about.”

It comes down to a simple principle: statistics deals with probability theory. The probability of something happening due to chance is measured as a ratio between zero and one. A probability of one = certainty. A probability of zero = impossible.

Statistics is used to analyse the probability of a particular event happening. If you buy a lottery ticket, then your probability of hitting the jackpot is one in (approximately) 14 million (in a six out of forty nine draw). The next week if you buy a ticket, the probability of you winning is also one in 14 million. Whether you win or lose the first draw, it has no effect whatsoever on whether you win or lose the second draw; they are independent events. The probability of you winning both draws can be worked out by the multiplication rule, so 14 million x 14 million, represents one chance in 196,000,000,000,000. How do you like those odds?

If you want to know the probability of winning the third jackpot, then multiply that number by another 14 million.  And so on. It doesn’t take long for those numbers to become mind-bogglingly big.

But here’s the big question: at what point does a particular posited event become “statistically impossible?” When can you declare that something is impossible – or that there must be something psychic going on as the only possible explanation for an unlikely event?

Ask yourself this: why should it be the case that a small number of people (who do not regard themselves as psychics) win several jackpots, but no self-professed psychic can predict the next lottery draw? It’s rather cliched, but ask a “psychic” what the next lottery numbers are going to be and he or she will squirm out of it, almost always starting with the words, “It doesn’t work like that.” How very true, but they won’t tell you how it does “work,” either.

MC900439329A long time ago – more than twenty years ago, I’m sure – I was walking along the local central shopping centre and noticed that there was a stall set up by a charity. There was a new car parked there, and on the stall there was an offer: “Win this car. Throw six sixes with these dice and you win it. £1.00 per entry.”

Would you take a chance on it? OK, this was a long time ago. The car was small and possibly worth (maybe) about a couple of thousand pounds at the time. On the other hand, a pound was worth more than it is now. But even if my guess and memory are correct, there is still a huge difference between a pound and several thousand pounds at stake at the time. Would you take the risk? All you have to do is throw six dice and get six sixes. Easy or what?

But what if you represent the charity that is trying to raise money for an undoubtedly good cause by taking the risk of giving away an expensive prize to someone who might win it with the very first throw of the dice? What are the actual risks here?

The reality is this: when a charity offers a huge prize (that they can’t really afford to lose), they employ an insurance company to take the risk on their behalf. On the other hand, if it pays off, the charity stands to make a lot of money to help them pursue their charitable goals. And that’s a good thing.

In fact, they won’t lose. Even if someone throws the six sixes on the first throw, the risk will be taken by the insurance company — in exchange for a premium, of course, which will be paid for from the draw takings – and the charity takes the rest. The insurance company calculates the odds, and charges the premium the charity pays accordingly. Depending on how the actuary of the insurance company works it out, there might, for instance be a limit imposed on how many dice throws are allowed during the charitable event. Or the premium to be paid might be adjusted for the number of throws over and above the basic calculation.

I’ll just add a note here: the charity will have to pay the premium, even if someone does actually win on the first (or a very early) throw. There’s still a risk, even for the charity, but the risk is small and in any case, it is an “allowable expense,” as it were.

I’ll add another note just for interest: a charity will also have a good relationship with the press and the event will be well publicised – which means that the additional publicity will also attract donations from people who support that charity’s aims. Those donors won’t have the opportunity to try to win the car, but will donate just because they are nice people who are willing to be altruistic. Good for them.

But look at it this way: if the car in the event I mentioned was valued at, say, £2,000 at the time, and participants were paying £1.00 per throw, there are 46,656 (6x6x6x6x6x6) possible combinations that the six dice could fall on. Although the first participant could throw the winning combination, he probably won’t. It’s also possible that even if exactly 46,656 people took part, there would still be no winner.

calculate winningsDouble that number to 93,312 participants, and there is still no guarantee that there would be a winner. Or perhaps the winning throw would happen on the very last throw. When it comes to pure chance, the outcome cannot be predicted. An insurance company might take the risk, but overall the odds are on their side. Occasionally, of course, an insurance company has to pay out, but how often do you hear of an insurance company going out of business because they got their sums wrong? And keep in mind the fact that some high risks are farmed out, as it were, to other insurance companies to share the risk. Insurance is, in fact, a highly profitable business. It’s for the same reason that you never see a down at heel bookmaker – they do the same thing with big risks.

To be realistic, a charity event like the one I’ve already mentioned being played over the course of one day in a busy shopping centre might attract a few hundred people (rather than tens of thousands) to part with their money. In that case, it’s unlikely that anyone will win the big prize, so the punters have a cheap flutter; the insurance company collects its premium; the charity adds a few hundred pounds to its funds and everyone is happy.

Would you say, though, that odds of one in 46,656 are impossible? No, of course not. Obviously some people win the lottery jackpot and the odds are even longer. Neither are “statistically impossible.” The same applies to multiple lottery wins. The point is this: if the probability of a particular event is greater than zero, then that event is certainly possible, however unlikely it seems to be. There is no such thing as a “statistical impossibility,” but some things are “statistically unlikely.” If I pay a pound to try to throw six sixes in that charity competition, I probably won’t win. And that’s the same reason I don’t play the lottery, with its even longer odds. (I do, however, donate to charities, so I’m not being a skinflint for not entering the prize competition.)

Unfortunately, probability is something that most people just do not have an intuitive grasp of. One person I met some time ago claimed that he played the lottery because he reckoned he had a fifty-fifty chance of winning; his reasoning was that you can only win or lose, ergo a probability of 0.5. He is, in fact, a gift to the gambling industry but I don’t think he will ever realise it.

So what does it mean when the pro paranormalists claim that some psychic scored a result that was “statistically impossible” in a test for telepathy, or whatever? Actually, such a claim means nothing at all. If the probability (greater than zero) of an event can be calculated, then it is possible. Only a calculated probability of zero is impossible. Think of it this way – what is the probability of throwing six sixes with only five dice? Zero, of course. But what is the probability of someone flipping a coin to land heads up with a double-headed coin? The probability is one (it’s certain).

So what is it that the pro paranormalists are getting at when they say so confidently that some psychics really have paranormal powers “because their score in a test was statistically impossible?” One thing is sure: no one in the paranormal field ever gives a figure – a probability level – that they can prove mathematically that marks the dividing line between possible and impossible. If a probability of one in a million is proposed, can that be said to be the dividing line? Maybe not; after all, some people win the lottery against much bigger odds. And some people have won several lotteries, remember.

Try this idea: suppose a psychic were to claim that if he were dealt all the cards in a well shuffled (randomised) deck, he would, using his powers, “attract” those cards in a specific order – Ace to king of Diamonds, then Hearts, then Clubs followed by Spades.Would you think he had the powers he claimed to have? (I might, but only under certain conditions that I will come to later.)

If you were dealt all the cards in a deck but you got a seemingly random hodge-podge of cards, would you think that you had attracted them through some kind of latent psychic powers you were not aware you had? I’m relating here to the hypothesis of the above blogger who assumed that because a very small number of people had won more than one lottery jackpot that they must have psychic powers as the explanation for their good fortune. Could the millions of people who lose out regularly be attracting bad luck through equally effective, but “negative,” psychic powers of their own?

Look at the card-dealing scenario again. Here’s something that might surprise you: the probability of being dealt any particular sequence of cards from a full deck  is one in nearly ten to the power of 68. In other words, there is a mind boggling number of possible combinations of cards that you could be dealt. If your hand is fair (the deck is not rigged in any way, and the deal is truly random) then any possible combination of cards could be dealt – including our psychic’s four straights. In a random draw, that combination is no more or less likely than any other combination.

Here’s what makes the difference: the blogger I referred to made his decision about the probability of a small number of people winning several jackpots after they had already won. That’s a fallacy called The Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy (drawing the bulls-eyes around the bullet holes after the event. I’ll do a post about it later.)

The same applies to our putative psychic who tells you before his cards are dealt that he will attract the consecutively numbered cards of each suit. But before the cards were dealt, he could have claimed to attract any particular sequence of cards out of 10^68 possible combinations, not just a particularly memorable sequence. To put it bluntly, no combination of cards is any more or less likely than any other – including Ace to King, or any other combination you can think of. When you are dealt such a  hand, the odds of getting those particular cards is 1 in nearly 10^68 – a one followed by sixty eight zeros.

Even with such a huge number of  possible combinations, however, you must get one of them. The odds against you getting those particular cards are incredible.

What makes the difference is whether or not a psychic predicts what will happen before it happens, or whether an unlikely event is claimed to be paranormal after it happens. The same applies to the so-called prophesies of Nostradamus – every claim made that he predicted this or that event is made after it happened. No one has ever successfully  identified an event supposedly predicted by him before it happened.

So would I really believe that someone is psychic if he or she predicted an unlikely outcome before it happened? It depends on several things:

First, there would have to be strict controls in place. If a psychic intends to predict a sequence of playing cards, then he does not get to be the dealer. Nor does he provide his own cards.

Second, the cards would be a brand new, sealed pack, which would then be randomised by an independent person (using a shuffling device of some kind that does not rely on his own randomisation process) who does not take any further part in the experiment.

Third, the cards would be dealt by some mechanical means so that no further human contact is involved.

Fourth, there are other controls I can think of, all of which would be designed to ensure that there is no possibility of either fraud or trickery.

Fifth, I would have to keep in mind that no experiment is perfect; there might be something I have missed. The best an experiment can do is reveal that its result is probably not due to chance alone, not that a result is “impossible” by chance alone.

Sixth, to the believers in psi who would say that such a setup “is not conducive to the production of psychic effects,” I would say: “Learn some science and stop whining.”

If our psychic successfully beats incredible odds, can we now declare him to have psychic powers? Unfortunately not. In science a single experiment is not definitive. Even at those huge odds, a fluke can still happen, which is why the experiment would have to be repeated many times. It would also have to be confirmed by independent researchers; in other words it would have to be replicated by others who are not involved with the original research.

Parapsychologists always seem to fall down at that hurdle. Whatever the alleged psychic phenomenon is, their experimental results only seem to happen for them, in their own laboratories. No one is suggesting that any of them are cheating in any way, but other researchers often find flaws in their methodology, and even if their experiments seem OK and are faithfully copied, the same results just fail to materialise.

There is also another problem with researching paranormal claims. The fact that an experimental result shows that a claimed paranormal event is probably not due to chance does not imply that the event is actually paranormal. Unfortunately, paranormal research has been plagued with fraud – so much so that scepticism is justified; some would say it is a requirement. Even some of the best researchers in the past (and some in the present) have been hoodwinked by various charlatans – and some have been charlatans themselves. But even without any kind of cheating, there might always just be something that the experimenter has overlooked. No experiment can ever be claimed to be perfect.

I would add this: if a professed psychic were to beat huge odds against, shall we say, information transfer by pure chance – at whatever probability level is set, I would accept that that information transfer is probably not due to pure dumb luck. I would think that the information transfer has happened, but there are many ways that that could happen without the need for a paranormal explanation, or an accusation of fraud.

Given the fact that even skilled paranormal researchers have failed to prove the existence of the paranormal, what credence should be given to other claims – like the one above about a small number of individuals winning several lottery jackpots? The simple fact is this: coincidences happen. Far from it being “statistically impossible” for someone to win multiple lottery jackpots, it is, in fact, a statistical certainty that some people will do just that. The big problem lies in predicting a coincidence before it happens.

The important thing to keep in mind about all this is that if a probability can be calculated, then that is the probability of a given event happening just by pure chance – however long the odds. A long shot that works out does not imply that something paranormal is going on. And when a statistically unlikely event is claimed to be paranormal only after it happens, forget it.

Ask a psychic to predict the next lottery draw. He or she will give reasons why they can’t or won’t do it. Don’t be surprised.

Then read some report of someone whose claim to have predicted something unlikely or unexpected surfaces only after the event, and see the paranormal folk go wild about it. Also don’t be surprised.

That’s why James Randi’s million dollars, for example, is safe. Psychics claim they can beat the odds, but if they could, the Million Dollar Challenge would have been won a long time ago.

Excuse me while I chuckle inwardly. Last time I checked, the MDC was a two part test. The probability of passing the first part by pure chance is one in one thousand. Get through that and you get to the second and final part – also a one in one thousand chance. The probability of getting through both tests by pure chance is (by the multiplication rule I mentioned above) one in one million.

Ordinary (non-famous) psychics apply for Randi’s prize and fail; they don’t have much to lose, but they do have a one in a million chance of hitting the big time. It might just work out for one of them one day.

On the other hand, the famous psychics who are raking in the cash already, have everything to lose – fail a big and famous test like Randi’s Challenge and they will be finished.

Psychics make claims about their alleged powers which, if true, would beat astronomical odds on a regular basis. I would start to believe in them if they would actually do what they claim. Wouldn’t it be nice if the evening news could have a guest psychic appear on screen half an hour before the live lottery draw to announce, “And tonight’s lottery numbers will be… “?

Or more importantly, news announcements about next week’s earthquake – and the fact that evacuation of the inhabitants is already underway in good time. Or perhaps after the earthquake those people who refused to leave in time were being found alive in the rubble of various buildings by remote viewers rather than rescue workers who have to use thermal cameras, microphones, sniffer dogs and so on.

Will that ever happen in the future? The statistical odds are against it. But maybe a psychic can tell us when it will happen?

I’m not going to bet money on that, either, but I will give the last word to Albert Einstein:

“God does not play at dice with the Universe.”

[Note: Einstein was referring to the new science of quantum physics; he wasn’t declaring a belief in any gods, it was a metaphor to illustrate that he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that subatomic events can happen randomly, without a preceding cause. His science dealt with the very big (the universe), whereas quantum physics deals with the very small (subatomic sizes). He never did manage to achieve his ambition to create a “theory of everything.”]

Claiming a coincidence to be paranormal is just bad thinking.

True Or Not – A False Dilemma

Seeking what is true is not seeking what is desirable.
— Albert Camus.

People are not naturally gifted with logical thought (look at how many “true” religions there are). But they sure are naturally good at illogical thought and the ability to bluff their way through arguments that seem superficially sound but are, in fact, pure rhetoric – whether their sophistry is by design or just ignorance driven by desperation.

BalanceIt is also true that people are generally unwilling to change their stance on a subject once they have committed themselves to a particular point of view. Once someone makes a claim about the paranormal, for example, if they are faced with an argument that renders their claim invalid, then they become even more entrenched in their position. That phenomenon is called the backfire effect, because although they have had their claim invalidated, they now feel the need to fight back harder and find even more reasons to support their original claim. A sceptical observer might decisively refute a paranormal claim (or at least prove that the claim is not true in the form it has been presented), but that will not change the opinion of the paranormal claimant. In other words, proving a claim to be invalid merely reinforces that belief in the mind of the claimant.

It leads to some interesting exchanges between believers and sceptics, but as a sceptic myself, I already know that a believer will not be converted into a rational thinker through rational argument. This blog is aimed at those who are agnostic about the paranormal and the other things I deal with here, as well as people who have found themselves becoming sceptical about wild claims and would like to know more about  how to deal with the paranormal, supernatural, quackery and other claims made by dyed-in-the-wool woomeisters.

One rhetorical technique that comes naturally to everyone without a second thought is a technique that, if successful, forces the opponent in a debate or argument to make a choice between two opposite propositions, neither of which might even be relevant to the discussion.

The False Dichotomy

I had this piece of sophistry thrown at me by a self-professed expert in matters paranormal in a previous post (and I promised him I would do another post about the subject: this is it). The commenter stated that many military personnel have evidence of alien visitation, and I was challenged to say whether those people were either telling the truth or lying.

Notice that the paranormal “expert” is offering only two options for me to choose between. The exact quote is:

“So, do you believe these astronauts, military personnel and others are telling the truth, and that extraterrestrial visitations are therefore likely to have taken place, or do you believe they are all lying?”

Stating it that way can be awkward because there is a certain emotive content attached to it. It attempts to force the person on the other side of the argument into a difficult situation – after all, would you want to say that you think those astronauts, etc., are telling the truth when you believe they are actually wrong? More importantly, would you want to be seen to be accusing someone of being a liar without being able to prove it? There could also be be legal implications for you if you did so. Keep in mind a very important point about this: someone might say something they genuinely believe to be true but which might, in fact, be false. In a situation like that, they are not telling lies, they just happen to be wrong. (Think of any TV quiz game: when a contestant who is trying to win the star prize worth thousands of p0unds misses out by giving a wrong answer, was he just telling lies? No, he believed he was right but got it wrong — and probably kicked the cat when he got home.)

In this particular case, my commenter is trying to force me to make a choice between two propositions when in fact there are other possibilities that he is no doubt aware of, but he is hoping that I will be drawn into making a choice between propositions of his choosing. It is a tactic that can often work in an informal face to face debate where the conversation is sometimes fast paced and there is not much time to think about it. But if you’re aware of the fallacy, it is less likely that you will be caught out.

In the example above, I am challenged to accept that the people making claims of UFOs are either being truthful, or telling deliberate lies. It can be summarised this way:

1) Are they telling the truth? Or:

2) Are they telling lies?

But there are other options:

3) They might be honest in their beliefs but have been fed with misinformation by a government that finds it useful to cover up secret aeroplane testing by encouraging people to falsely believe they are seeing UFOs rather than secret military hardware. (That doesn’t mean that a government must be promoting a belief in UFOs, just that they don’t necessarily discourage the belief if it distracts people from suspecting they are observing secret military tests.)

4, etc.) There are numerous other possibilities one could think of, each with its own level of plausibility or lack thereof.

Presenting two options to support an argument when in fact there are more is the logical fallacy called the false dichotomy, sometimes called a false dilemma. In more formal terms, it is known as the fallacy of the excluded middle (not to be confused with Aristotle’s law of excluded middle, i.e., the principle of non-contradiction – another post, later).

This example is in the same vein as the old “have you stopped beating your wife” question. A “yes” implies you used to do it; a “no” implies that you do it – even though you might never have raised a finger to your wife. (A yes or no answer also implies that the person being questioned actually has a wife.)

In this example, the false dichotomy is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy by your opponent to try to put you into a position where you are forced to make a choice between two propositions, neither of which you or he can necessarily prove or disprove, thereby deflecting attention away from the fact that there are other options, and the fact that there is no evidence to support the claims being made in the first place.

Whenever someone you are debating offers you a simple choice between two opposing options, you should be wary immediately. Just ask yourself, “Are there any other possibilities?”

The false dichotomy is not the same as a genuine choice between two mutually exclusive propositions. Are alien spaceships hidden away in a military facility at Area 51? They either are or they aren’t, and there is no in-between. It’s an objective claim that must be true or false.

If I were to say to any self-professed UFO “expert” something like, “Are you a clueless gobshite, or a cynical exploiter of gullible people?” I would be committing the same fallacy. There are other possibilities, including the possibility that he or she is suffering from a mental disorder; or that his or her belief is genuine, but there is an inability on their part to separate fact from fantasy (delusion); they might have no training in science and are therefore unable to understand why their claims of extraterrestrial visitation are highly implausible; they might have invested so much time and energy publicising their beliefs that it would be too humiliating for them to admit that they cannot prove any of their claims. There are more options, not too difficult to think of, but you probably get the idea. (One other option is that the UFO claimant is correct in his or her assertion that aliens are here, but that’s where their claims go askew: ultimately, they cannot produce confirmable evidence, but they can always think of reasons why they can’t produce it – conspiracy theories and anything else that will get them off the hook. “Apologetics” might be a good word for it.)

In a debate about the paranormal (or anything else), it comes down to one simple thing: can the claimant produce evidence to support their claims, or can they not? It’s a simple dichotomy, but not a false dichotomy. If someone says that aliens are here, they are or they are not. Similarly, the claimant has the evidence to support their claim or they do not.

If they insist that they do have the evidence to prove whatever paranormal claim they are making, then the onus is on them to prove it. The more excuses they make for not showing it publicly, the louder they deserve to be laughed at.

One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent.
— H L Mencken, in The American Mercury, January, 1924