Category Archives: Skeptic

No, I’m Not Psychic

I was recently asked if I’m psychic. This was a question from my passenger in my car as I was giving him a lift. It was not the first time I have been asked that question while I have been driving, and it came about only because I slowed the car down quickly just before someone walked out from between a couple of vehicles ahead of me. Until that precise moment, the pedestrian was not in view and my passenger had certainly not seen him; neither had I, actually.

 

That experience is not uncommon for me, when I come to think about it. And it made me think about some comments I have seen on some pro paranormal blogs, the idea being that there are some believers who have had similar experiences, but put it down to some kind of psychic awareness as the only possible way they could have avoided what might otherwise have turned into a rather nasty accident. I think there is a more prosaic answer, though.

 

I would say this: I have met many drivers who will proclaim with confidence that they are good drivers (even excellent drivers) because they reckon they have “fast reactions.” If you are one of those drivers, then let me assure you that good driving has nothing to do with fast reactions; it is to do with looking ahead and anticipating what is happening ahead of you. During forty-odd years of driving, I have experienced a couple of collisions that involved insurance claims; one was a young driver in a high-powered car who ran into the back of my car, and the other was a driver who pulled out in front of me from a side street at high speed and I could not stop before I went into the side of his car. Both incidents were beyond my control, and could happen to anyone. (And neither were my fault.)

 

But what about those incidents I have avoided, but seem to some to be explicable only by assuming a psychic component? Even my own wife, who knows I don’t believe in anything paranormal, has asked me if I am psychic when I have avoided a potential accident when she has been sitting beside me. I have to admit I had never thought much about it before, but I explained it to her this way:

 

For anyone who begins driving lessons, it is a tough experience. One’s concentration is focused on a lot of unfamiliar things at once: clutch, brake, accelerator, gear stick, indicators, rear-view mirror, wing mirrors, everything going on with the dials on the dashboard, wind screen wipers if it starts to rain, the instructor giving continuous directions, not to mention everything else that is going on around the vehicle itself. The learner driver is also having to cope with other drivers who might not have the courtesy to allow for the fact that there are other people learning, as they once did, and who need just a bit of consideration and some patience.

 

Learning to drive is not the easiest thing that anyone does in their life. And even when a novice passes their driving test, that is not the end of it. I remember the last words my driving instructor said to me when I passed my test: “Now is when you start learning how to drive.” I think a lot of driving instructors will say that to their newly-qualified students, but it is more true than most people realise; it’s not just a platitude.

 

As someone gains experience driving, then everything gradually becomes second nature and so less concentration is needed for handling the vehicle itself, and more concentration can be given to the road ahead. And this, I would say, is the key to why some people have wondered if I have some kind of psychic ability. For me, driving is now second nature, and I try to concentrate on the road ahead of me, with little, if any, thought given to the actual process of driving the car.

 

When I have thought about it, I think I have worked out what is going on. For example, I drive with caution in built up areas, especially an area where there are children about. I don’t get a sixth sense experience, but I can sometimes see a person’s shadow before I see the person himself. If I am driving up an incline, it is often possible to see under a line of vehicles and perhaps just see someone’s feet. It turns out there are many visual cues and clues if you keep a sharp lookout ahead. Sometimes it might be a reflection in a window, or even a very undefined reflection on a vehicle’s paintwork.

 

There is also sound (admittedly perhaps less reliable in heavy traffic). Again, my wife was astonished when I put the brakes on quickly and did a sharp stop just before a van came out of a back lane without intending to stop. As it happens, I heard the driver’s engine and the sound of it was increasing. A collision was therefore avoided, although the other driver’s face did register some shock when he realised he nearly caused an accident. As it happens, I have seen similar accidents happen in the same area in exactly the same circumstances, so maybe that information is stored somewhere in my subconscious.

 

There are other times where someone has walked off the pavement and into my path without looking. A couple of days ago, a saw a woman walking across the footpath and straight into the road in front of me; that wasn’t anything special because I saw her in plenty of time and it was clear that she just wasn’t paying attention, and I was able to slow down in plenty of time. Other cases I have in mind involve people on a pavement who are perhaps talking and not obviously about to cross the road, but without warning one of them does just that! I can only say that I have detected something about the body language of one of them that makes me take notice. So far, I have had several experiences like that, although it is fair to say that often when I get “that feeling” nothing happens and no one dashes out in front of me. It’s not an exact science, but I think it’s better to err on the side of caution.

 

What I’m getting at is just that there is no need for you to assume you have any psychic powers if you have avoided an accident without knowing exactly how you did it. When my wife (or anyone else) has asked me how I knew someone was going to rush out in front of me, then I can sometimes say that I actually saw them, even if indirectly because of a shadow or a reflection or a sound. Had I been on my own at that time then I would no doubt not have given it a second thought.

 

The whole point of this post is just to say that, like many other situations where people think they have had a paranormal experience, they probably haven’t. People perceive things they aren’t consciously aware of, but which they sometimes (too often, I think) interpret in a way that is not justified. Those commenters on other blogs and websites who think they have avoided a motor accident because they “must” have some psychic ability are wrong; I think they might be better drivers than they give themselves credit for.

 

Misperception and misinterpretation underpinned by a belief system is, I think, what is behind the continuing belief in alleged psychic phenomena. I have avoided accidents through observation and anticipation; others do the same but attribute it to psi. I think they are wrong, and there might be some potential accidents waiting to happen that will involve some psi believers who think that their faith in their perceived psychic powers will prevent real accidents from happening. If so, then that is bad thinking.

 

As I said earlier, good driving has nothing to do with fast reactions; I would, however, take my chances with the person who says they have fast reactions rather than anyone who claims to avoid accidents due to some alleged psychic ability.

 

If you happen to be one of those drivers or motorcyclists who think your avoidance of a potential accident is due to some latent psychic ability, please think again and try to analyse what, exactly, happened just before you reacted. You might surprise yourself if you can work out that your driving ability rather than your belief in some kind of precognition is what saved the day. And give yourself some credit for that.

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If Real Life Worked Like Claims Of The Paranormal

A while ago an acquaintance of mine, who happens to have been born in India, told me of a holiday he had taken in his home country. It turns out that he and his party decided to visit a remote area – a small village that had had little or no contact with the “outside world,” as it were. He told me of his astonishment when one of his group pulled out a transistor radio, and the villagers they were visiting pulled back in fright at the fact that voices and music were coming out of this small box.

Arthur C. Clarke’s famous saying, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” suddenly seemed very pertinent indeed. These were people who had never come into contact with what most of us take as every-day, nothing-special personal entertainment. For them, however, this was, indeed, an experience that seemed like actual magic.

 As we know, a radio receiver is a clever piece of technology, even if you don’t know exactly how it works (although you might know it’s to do with modulated radio waves being transformed into electrical signals that power a loudspeaker), you know that there is nothing about it that involves actual magic. The laws of physics are at work, and you can quite easily find out more about it. There is an underlying theory (and I mean theory in the scientific sense) that explains it all, and of course any aspect of the theory can be tested at will. Let’s face it: anyone can test whether a radio works just by turning it on and tuning it in to a radio station. It would even be possible, perhaps, for some of those villagers themselves to learn about electricity and electronics if they had the will (and perhaps the means) to do so.

 When I was told that anecdote, I began to wonder about what the paranormal folks think they are achieving with their various paranormal claims. My acquaintance had not gone to an out of the way place just to make unsubstantiated claims about an alleged magic box of voices and music – the radio was there and was working – but what if he had? Maybe those villagers wouldn’t have believed him. And why should they, if he had failed to provide the evidence that would convince them? It certainly wouldn’t be up to them to disprove the magic box claims.

 This, I think, is where all claims of the paranormal fail completely, and probably always will. There is no underlying theory with regard to any paranormal or supernatural claim. Sounds coming from a small box could be explained by saying that it contains very small people, or perhaps fairies have their home in there. The problem then, of course, is that some people might believe it; others might be sceptical. But what if someone proposing either of those “theories” could not demonstrate the claims they make, nor could they even make their magic box work on a reliable basis? Then they have to start making excuses for something they don’t understand themselves.

 Think of it this way: in the unlikely event that I met someone who had never heard of electricity and electric light, I would probably be eager to show them what they had been missing out on. I might invite them to my home so that as night drew in, I would be able to demonstrate my claims by simply flicking a switch and suddenly having my living room (and whole house, if necessary) bathed in instant light. No more of putting up with darkness until daylight eventually crept up in the early morning, or relying on a fire or just a candle with its weak and flickering flame. No, I’m talking about a sufficiently advanced technology that would seem like magic – at least until I explained the theory of electricity and how it works.

 But what if, when the darkness closes in, I flick the switch… and nothing happens? Should I say to my guest that the reason for the light’s failure is that the “energy” is upset by a sceptic (him or her, obviously)? Maybe I could say that he or she just didn’t have enough faith? Maybe I could claim that electricity is a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t just be called up at will? Maybe the “energy” has chosen not to be tested at this time? Perhaps [insert any standard excuse of the woo people, including the accusation that disbelief is just the nay-saying of a typical pseudo sceptical denialist].

 This is the difference between the paranormal proponents and those of us who live in the real (and rational) world. I would not have to make excuses for failure, I would go through a standard procedure to rectify the problem, because I would be working on the basis of a real (scientific) theory.

 Here’s how it would go: the light fails to light up. Maybe the bulb has burned out, so I would replace it with a new one. But what if I flick the switch again and it still does not light up? The next stage would be to see whether the main fuse is OK; sometimes, of course, when a light bulb burns out, it also causes its fuse to blow or a circuit breaker to flip. If the light still doesn’t go on, then the next stage would be to check the light fitting, the switch, or any other part of the circuit that might have failed. If none of that cures the problem, then I would have to check to see if there is a general power cut in the area, or even check to make sure that I have actually remembered to pay the electricity bill and the supply hasn’t been disconnected because of my forgetfulness. The point is, electricity is real, even if my guest has never experienced it before. Eventually, of course, even after all of that, I will be able to prove my claim about electric light, and also demonstrate why it might sometimes fail, and how it can be put right. You know yourself that electric light is real (surely?).

 If my guest were sufficiently interested, I could supply him with books about electricity that explain electromagnetism, magnetism, electrical fields, movement of electrons and so on. He might even want to try to do some of the basic experiments that many of us did in school. The bottom line is that electricity can be understood, produced and manipulated because it is supported by a scientific theory. My guest could even, possibly, develop an interest in the subject to the point where he wanted to learn to be an electrician or electrical engineer.

 But that’s the real world. The world of woo is rather different. Someone might want to explain a transistor radio in terms of tiny people inside a small box. They switch it on and it produces sound. The tiny people hypothesis can be claimed, and it wouldn’t affect whether the radio worked or not. And I think paranormal claims are rather like that. If it didn’t happen to work when switched on, then it could be claimed that the tiny people have gone out for the day, or they were tired, or on holiday, or doing something else. The truth might be that the batteries have run out, or there are no stations transmitting at that time, or that the radio is in a bad reception area. Maybe there is a component failure that can be traced and repaired in a similar way to the electric light scenario above. Without a solid theory that explains radio transmission and reception, the proponents of tiny people are going to get absolutely nowhere. If you don’t know that batteries have to be replaced occasionally, you are in trouble.

 A sceptic like me would want to test this out. Tiny people? OK, let’s open this box and have a look at them. But what if I’m told I can’t see them because they’re invisible? I can’t touch them because they’re immaterial? I can’t hear them moving about because they are silent (except when they are producing sounds but only with the box closed)? And so on. Paranormal claims are like that. For every way that a claim might be tested, there is an equal and opposite excuse that can be given for why a test fails or simply can’t be conducted. Often enough, you would not even be allowed to open that box anyway.

 There are innumerable claims of the paranormal to contend with – telepathy, precognition, astrology, psychokinesis, spiritualism and a host of others. I think it’s possible that parapsychologists are not even testing what they think they are testing. In telepathy, for instance, I won’t disagree that there are sometimes examples of information being transferred from one person to another. There are many ways it can occur, but psychic power is not a necessary condition for that to happen. When a researcher believes he or she has managed to control for all possible normal ways that it could happen, then the next stage has to be to detect and test the alleged psychic energy or whatever they think is behind it. In other words, form a hypothesis regarding what this alleged energy might be and test it. And that is what seems to elude all parapsychologists.

 It seems to me that if those researchers have “proven” telepathy or any other paranormal claim, then doing the same old tests over and over is futile. If Michael Faraday had gone no further than moving a magnet through a coiled wire, then that would have been the end of it. Instead, he collaborated with James Clerk Maxwell, and then the whole electromagnetic spectrum was discovered. It’s a theory, alright, but a theory that actually explains what electricity (and light and magnetism) is, and how it can be used. It works, and there is no need to make excuses for failure.

 Unfortunately, the present state of parapsychology is rather like the radio mentioned above. It seems to work some of the time, but speculation about tiny people is way off the mark. Without a testable theory to work with, it is doomed to stay in the realms of woo. In my proposed electric light scenario above, a failure can be rectified by going through a standard set of procedures to test the circuit and repair it, based on the underlying theory. In the meantime, all the paranormal folk can do is make excuses – none of which can be tested or rectified in a similar manner. I think that after more than a century of supposed “scientific” psychic research there should by now be a theory available to underpin psychic and other paranormal claims if any of them were real.

 I can imagine a scenario where a tiny-person believer would call me a closed-minded pseudosceptic for not accepting the possibility (reality?) of tiny people operating the radio set from within. And I would also be derided for demanding testable evidence for what is, in fact, an obviously nonsensical claim; after all (as usual), I would not be able to disprove the claim – although that is almost always the fall-back of the committed woomeister.

 In the meantime… Pfffft! I will show you that electricity is real and how to test it, because there is a testable theory behind it, and I will not make excuses if my light does not light up; I will fix it if it doesn’t.

 If your psychic, dowser, remote viewer, astrologer, spoon bender or whatever fails to perform in the same way, then do what I do if I make a scientific claim – prove it. Then I will be convinced.

 Anyway, can any alleged psychic who disagrees with any of this just make a contribution in the comments section and state what this week’s lottery numbers will be?

 Additional note: many parapsychologists claim that their tests of various alleged psychics show that the probability of their subjects having passed the tests they have undergone, by dumb luck alone, are trillions to one against chance. If that is true, then I would suggest that because lotteries are only millions to one against winning the jackpot, then getting the right numbers in any lottery should be a trivial task by comparison. (The difference between trillions and millions is several orders of magnitude – for anyone who understands what “orders of magnitude” means.)

 However, using my sceptical powers, that I have vowed to use only for good, I predict with confidence that no psychic will provide those winning numbers. And if any do, then I will simply ask them to replicate their achievement the following week just for the purpose of replication in the scientific spirit, and confirming their claim, in the same way that any claim within science has to be replicated before it can be given serious consideration.

 I am not expecting to become a millionaire because of this challenge, however, although if any psychic provides me with the winning numbers in a couple of lotteries, I will be more than happy to renounce my scepticism and announce my confident belief in the existence of the paranormal from my new luxury yacht.

 

Legend Detectives – Mysteries Not Solved At All

I was flicking through the TV Channels recently and happened upon the Discovery Channel series Legend Detectives. I decided to see what it was about, given the fact that the programme was presented by Ronald Top, a fine actor and someone I got to like firstly through the TV series Industrial Revelations.

But the programme was also to include Massimo Polidoro, well known sceptic and debunker of pseudoscience and assorted woo. This was starting to look promising.

Next up was Tessa Dunlop, historian; so, this was beginning to look like something I would naturally be interested in – something more serious than Ancient Bleeding Aliens or some other pseudo-scientific claptrap. This series of programmes was going to be investigating some of the historical legends we are all familiar with, but from a seemingly sensible perspective and in which some well-informed people would be trying to tease the facts from the myths of famous stories – Robin Hood, The Man In The Iron Mask and others. Just the sort of thing I like to get into.

And then they had to go and spoil it all by informing their viewers that the fourth member of “the team” would be Tony Stockwell, alleged psychic, who would be using his “powers” to find out what actual history researchers could not. [*Facepalm*]

I have seen only two episodes of the six made, but I don’t think I will bother to watch the others. The first I saw was about Robin Hood, and the second was about The Man In The Iron Mask. What was significant for me was that the four-person “team” never appeared as one group. Top, Polidoro and Dunlop are seen all together during the programmes, but Stockwell does not appear with them in the same group. Stockwell appears with Top as they go into a dungeon together, for example, trying to elicit information from the past using Stockwell’s supposed psychic abilities.

And then this programme suddenly assumes the mantle of any typical paranormal pseudo-documentary: we have been told that Stockwell has been given no prior information about what it is all about, and it is up to him to tell the presenter, Top, what was going on there hundreds of years ago, and bingo! Our psychic comes up with vague but seemingly relevant information that can be construed as a major validation of what historians already knew anyway. Amazing, isn’t it?

It reminds me of the TV series Psychic Detectives when Stockwell appeared with Colin Fry and TJ Higgs, supposedly solving past crimes and mysteries. I remember one episode where they were trying to discover the facts of what happened to a young man who disappeared and committed suicide. As I was watching that episode, I typed the man’s name into Google and a whole list of links came up, including newspaper reports of the time and so on, so I opened numerous tabs for many of those links. And, I have to say, Stockwell and his psychic colleagues got all of the details of the case exactly right! It was all there on the internet! How do you explain that, then? Some people might think I am being cynical when I point out that the information was there long before that programme was ever made, but that’s just me, perhaps. Maybe I am just one of those pseudo-sceptics that the believers carp on about.

Then things suddenly got worse. After a brief internet search I found out why Tessa Dunlop seemed familiar to me: she has also presented another “history” show, Paranormal Egypt, with another supposed psychic, Derek Acorah! In that series, she and Acorah were seen exploring ancient tombs with Acorah trying to contact the ancient Pharaos, no less. And if I remember correctly, there was an outcry later from officials in the Egyptian authorities who had not been told that what was proposed as a history documentary was, in fact, another programme of paranormal piffle, with Dunlop doing the screaming instead of Yvette Fielding from Most Haunted. For me, Dunlop’s credibility as an historian is now totally shattered.

Although I saw a brief scene with Top, Polidoro and Stockwell together on a boat as they travelled to a location, I did not see Polidoro actually in conversation with Stockwell, so I can’t say what Polidoro made of it all, but he must (surely) have been aware of what was going on. In any case, the summing up at the end of the episodes I saw did not include Stockwell with Top, Polidoro and Dunlop. I don’t know if that was any different in any of the other four episodes.

Things get even stranger, though. I tried to find out more information about the series, but there is almost no detail even on Discovery’s website. The Internet Movie Database is no help either; it lists the series title and three directors (for “unknown episodes”); there is no cast list, and no other details. The only factual thing I could find out is that the series was made in 2005. It’s almost as if no one associated with Legend Detectives wants anyone to know about it.

I just can’t work out what is going on here. I like the idea of a TV programme that looks at legendary characters and situations, even though the likelihood of arriving at definitive answers seems remote; there’s nothing wrong with some scholarly speculation and there might always be some new findings coming to light. The idea of using a psychic in a serious programme, though, is absurd. The show might have been more interesting if part of it had included something like the sceptic challenging the psychic, maybe, but that just wasn’t going to happen here. And an historian who thinks that historical information can be retrieved through a psychic channelling long-dead characters? No, I don’t buy it.

I guess this series of only six episodes made over a decade ago probably didn’t get great ratings when it first aired, so it might have just been quietly set aside, waiting to be rediscovered when there wasn’t much else available to fill the schedules. If they had ditched the psychic, or kept the psychic but had some confrontation between him, the sceptic and the historian – a discussion moderated by the presenter, perhaps – the whole thing could have been much better. But that didn’t happen, of course.

Overall, I have to give Legend Detectives a resounding thumbs-down.

What Makes An Odd Event Paranormal?

Strange things happen. All the time. And that is where the woo people and I part company; when the believing folks see something unusual, it seems their first reaction is to assume a paranormal explanation, but my own reaction to something out of the ordinary tends to be something like, “What the f…?”

There aren’t an awful lot of things the paranormal people claim to have seen that I, too, have not – in some form or another. The difference, though, is that my own reaction to something I observe but have no immediate explanation for, is to wonder about it, and if I can’t think of and confirm a rational explanation, I put it on hold. Often, the best I can do is to try to work out what is more or less likely in any given situation and just leave it at that.

Think of it this way: if one of my employees turned up late for work and said that it was because of a punctured tyre on his or her car, then I might believe it, just because car tyres really do exist and they sometimes do get punctured. It’s happened to me a number of times, so I can confirm that the proposed scenario is quite possible, even if the employee is telling lies because he or she just overslept.

But what if my employee said they were late because they had been temporarily abducted by aliens from another galaxy and their lateness was due to extended anal probing by grey-coloured humanoids who are creating alien-human hybrids with a view to infiltrating the highest levels of governments across the world in order to facilitate a take-over of Earth? Only die-hard believers in UFOs and alien visitation would entertain such a thought for more than a few milliseconds.

Yes, that’s what I’m getting at. When something odd happens, the choice you have is to think it through, or to jump to a preconceived conclusion. That is what the believers tend to do, especially if there’s something in it for them – publicity, perhaps, or even a cash reward if it increases business, as it often does for places where a good ghost story might increase revenue. There are lots of pubs, for instance, that have a ghost story attached. It’s never bad for business to have a ghost around.

That’s one reason I was interested in yet another ghost story highlighted on the Skeptic’s Boot blog (and I recommend you head over there to read it, and then follow the blog – it’s very good). Long story short: a customer’s glass of lager suddenly exploded, therefore “ghostly explanation,” supported by still pictures from CCTV; and even better, actual video from a different, but similar, event, where you can see the customer’s glass shatter in a very dramatic fashion.

The Skeptic’s Boot offers a reasonable and plausible explanation of what might have actually happened, and I am particularly interested because something very similar happened to me a year or two ago.

What happened to me was as simple as this: I made myself a cup of coffee and started to drink it. I was using the same glass cup I had used for a number of years, and had taken just a few sips from it. The cup was just over half full, but as it sat there beside me on my desk, it suddenly shattered and coffee was all over my desk. The sudden bang as it happened took me by surprise, alright.

Although the Skeptic’s Boot offers a perfectly rational explanation for the exploding glasses (possibly a glass still hot from the pub’s glass washer being stressed when a cold drink was put into it), the same explanation would not easily fit in with my own experience. My own cup is usually washed in warm, not hot, water, and in any case adding a hot liquid to a warm glass shouldn’t really cause a sudden, catastrophic failure of that kind, surely? I had used it hundreds of times, after all.

As you might guess, my own reaction to a personal experience that is odd is, to say the least, to try to find a plausible explanation before I start to invoke paranormal or supernatural answers. In my own example, I can’t give a definitive and confirmable answer as to what happened, but I can make an educated guess. Glass production has to be very precise so that the object created is going to be stable and safe to use. When glass products are made, it is important that the temperature is controlled throughout the process. The glass has to be made at very high temperatures, but more importantly, the objects made have to be cooled very, very slowly, otherwise the glass itself becomes stressed and therefore liable to go wrong, so to speak.

I think my own glass coffee cup was already stressed before I bought it. It worked fine for a number of years before it exploded right beside me, but it’s also possible that sometime recently when it had been handled, it might have been damaged. I know it had been dropped several times without apparent damage, but I think all it would take to make any internal stresses reveal themselves would be just the slightest scratch on the surface – possibly from a fall, or rough handling when it was placed onto the dish rack with other cups, plates and cutlery. But why should anyone propose a paranormal explanation for something that is much more likely to just be “one of those things”?

I tend to become rather exasperated when the believers accuse sceptics of simply making up what are, to them, “implausible excuses” to explain what is obvious to any believer: it’s a ghost, a poltergeist, a malevolent spirit, karma, or [insert preferred woo here].

The way to find out what is actually going on in a strange situation is to try to rule out normal explanations before coming to a paranormal or supernatural conclusion. And if you can’t find the cause of the problem, then you really need to put the thing on the back burner until there is more information available. Often, as in the above cases, no further information might come to light (yet), so all you can do is regard it as a bit of a curiosity. There are many natural ways for strange things to happen, so assuming the paranormal (which has never been proven to be real) is just irrational.

Paranormal activity cannot be considered as a possible cause of any unusual event until such time that someone can demonstrate that the paranormal has any basis in reality. Stressed glass is real, and so it can be put on the list of possible explanations for the above events. Ghosts have never been proven to be real, so they can’t be put on any list of possibilities. And of course, it’s not up to me or anyone else to disprove a paranormal hypothesis; the burden of proof is on anyone who makes such a claim. Giving preference to a paranormal explanation over a natural (even if tentative) explanation, is just bad thinking.

What Will 2017 Be Like For Paranormal Claims?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Woomeister: There is plenty of evidence.

 Skeptic: So, can I see it, then?

 Woomeister: No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Sad Day For Skepticism

skepdic

I was saddened to read that one of the leading lights of scepticism, Robert Todd Carroll, author of The Skeptic’s Dictionary, has died; he had been ill for the last two years with pancreatic cancer.

The Skeptic’s Dictionary was one of the first sceptical websites I came across more than fifteen years ago when I first subscribed to a broadband internet connection (until then it was dial-up, and casual web surfing was almost completely out of the question because of slow speed and minute by minute charges). But for me it was an intellectual life-changer when I found out that not only did many other people share my doubts about paranormal and supernatural claims, but here was a resource that collated and critiqued those claims. Indeed, I found out that there was a worldwide community of like-minded rational thinkers out there.

Naturally, I subscribed to Robert Carroll’s regular newsletters, and I looked forward to new articles as they were added to the site. One feature I particularly enjoyed was the regular readers’ comments as they came in – especially those readers who thought they had demolished various criticisms of their cherished beliefs about just about everything from ghosts to medical quackery. And yet they could never seem to understand that belief is not the same as knowledge – one of the very things that Carroll was trying to explain.

I was always encouraged by his implicit exhortations to his readers not to assume knowledge, but to be on guard against that very assumption. It might be OK to claim certain kinds of knowledge, of course: facts are facts, after all, and 2+2=4, but if you want to claim otherwise then you are obliged to prove it. The fact that no psychic has ever passed a scientific test that has now become part of mainstream science does not mean that the next psychic that comes along won’t do it; then again, after more than a hundred and fifty years of supposedly scientific research into paranormal claims, we are still waiting for confirmation of anything allegedly psi-based.

Robert Carroll promoted an open-minded approach to assessing paranormal, supernatural and dubious medical claims, although the believers do not accept sceptics as being honest enquirers into their weird claims; rather, the believers regard doubters as what they call “pseudosceptics” – a rather derogatory term they use to describe those doubters as closed-minded denialists. If only the believers could have read The Skeptic’s Dictionary as what it was – a guide to logical and critical thinking that would, at the very least, have shown them a way to objectively examine their own biases. Then again, Robert Carroll said himself that his dictionary was aimed more at the sceptical thinkers than at the woo folk; he said clearly that his website had that bias. Personally, of course, I think that a bias in favour of objective analysis of off-beat claims is quite fair.

I hope that The Skeptic’s Dictionary website will continue to be there, even though Bob Carroll cannot make any further additions to it. I can only offer my condolences to his family, and say to them that he made a difference to my life. Even though I already had a university degree that prepared me for tackling absurd claims from various quarters in the woo community, the dictionary helped me to connect in a certain way to the wider community of rational thinkers who had been isolated from me before the advent of broadband internet communication.

In a world where irrationality and various superstitions seem to be thriving despite the fact that we now live in the twenty first century, a time when superstition should have died out by now, people like Bob Carroll will be missed by rational thinkers, but I also think that he has inspired the next generation of people who want to live in a rational world and are prepared to work for it. It worked for me, and I think that he has left a legacy that should be appreciated by everyone who just wants to know what is going on out there.

 

SPR Has A New Website

There’s a new website on the block – the Society for Psychical Research has replaced its old site with something newer and more up to date. It is, in fact, an improvement on the older version and easier to navigate and find articles of interest. The old site was one I seldom visited nowadays because it was fairly static for such a long time, so I didn’t ever really expect to find anything new (apart from some notices about forthcoming events). My interest is renewed, however, since I found out about this new upgrade thanks to Tom Ruffles.

But I’m a sceptic, so why am I (sort of) advertising “the opposition”? The fact is, although I don’t think there is anything in paranormal and supernatural claims, I think it’s important to look at and examine everything relevant to what is going on out there, as it were. Even though I am sceptical of paranormal claims, I don’t have any qualms about the possibility that someone, somewhere, might, actually, prove the reality of life after death, telepathy, poltergeists, astrology, Tarot, dowsing, auras, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing, apparitions, ghosts, orbs, UFOs, alien abduction, Bigfoot, mediums and sundry psychics, not to mention the assorted medical quackery out there in the form of homeopathy, acupuncture, chiropractic, reiki, and other types of faith healing and magical thinking, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

To be fair, I regard the SPR as one of the more serious organisations that deal with paranormal claims; it has been around since 1882, after all, and it has had some very eminent people among its luminaries. I don’t think the SPR has proven the existence of anything paranormal in all that time, but I am prepared to defend the organisation as one that takes the matter seriously and at least tries to apply some academic and scientific rigour to what it does.

Personally, I don’t regard my disagreement with what I think of as “woo” as something that has to be (or should be) taken more (or less) seriously than any other academic disagreement. The paranormal exists or it doesn’t. It comes down to a basic inductive logical concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. Promoters of the paranormal (including the SPR) have the obligation to prove the claims they make, so how is the SPR doing so far?

I haven’t had time to delve very deeply into this new site, although in their Psi Encyclopedia I have had a look at a couple of articles so far: one on the Victorian-era medium Eusapia Palladino, and another on the spoon bender Uri Geller.

I’m not sure the SPR are doing themselves any favours here. Palladino, in her time, was tested by some of the biggest names of the day, but she was repeatedly caught out using outright fraud to achieve the alleged paranormal effects that seemed to occur during her various séances. For some reason, the investigators overlooked, ignored or just dismissed these blatant ruses, preferring to believe that when they couldn’t catch her out, then she must have been producing genuine paranormal phenomena. That’s a bit overly optimistic, in my opinion.

The section on Uri Geller is also too flattering. Anecdotal claims of his supposed psychic powers are there in lieu of hard evidence, and some of the claims made (especially regarding Geller’s supposed work finding oil for oil companies, not to mention his paranormal espionage claims) can’t be elaborated on because of secret commercial interests and state security – so we are told, anyway. There is no mention of the famous Johnny Carson TV show where Geller failed to perform at all when he was presented with props he had had no previous access to, nor is there any mention of the numerous YouTube videos that purport to show him using nothing more than sleight of hand rather than real psychic powers. None of that is conclusive proof that Geller is a fraud, but the fact that contradictory evidence is excluded from the article is rather troubling if the SPR’s new site is supposed to be unbiased in its reporting of alleged psi in action. But maybe it isn’t designed to be unbiased, even though there is, for both articles, a list of references; that looks good on the face of it, but actual links would have been useful (and more convenient for the casual reader).

I’m basing what I have written so far on only a couple of articles, of course, so keep that in mind before you rush to make an overall judgement of the website. I will have to read further to find out if there is any actual sceptical or critical thinking being employed by the SPR to analyse any of the people or claims featured. I recommend that you follow the links I have given and judge for yourself.

Overall, I would recommend this new, revamped, website to anyone who has an interest in the paranormal (either pro or sceptical). I think some sceptics will be quick to pounce on logical and factual irregularities such as the ones I have pointed out above; at the same time, I think the believers will accept what is there at face value. In any case, the new site is more accessible than the old site, it is easier to navigate and there is the implied promise of a lot more content to be added in the coming weeks and months.

I applaud the SPR for upgrading their main resource for both their members and a lay audience; time will tell how it will work out. I’m rather ambivalent here: the believers will, I think, love it; the sceptics will probably shrug their shoulders.

 

A Lark In The Dark

A few years ago, the world of spiritualism was shaken when purported psychic Colin Fry was performing one of his supposed séances. It’s a well-known story now, of course: during one of Fry’s performances someone switched the lights on. Instead of being tied to a chair – as the audience thought – fry was walking about the darkened room holding a “spirit trumpet” with fluorescent markings that the audience thought was being flown about by psychic energy. That came as a shock to the believers; less so to those of us with a sceptical outlook.

Fry survived the scandal, of course, by “putting himself in a trance” and subsequently explaining that he had been possessed by a mischievous spirit that made him do it. And he was unaware of it himself at the time. He was as shocked as anyone else, according to him.

But most importantly, he got away with it and went on to bigger and better things on stage and TV. Such is the credulity of an audience of uncritical believers.

seance3Time will tell if a newer face in the psychic firmament will have similar luck. Gary Mannion, spiritualist, psychic surgeon and allegedly a lot of other mystical things, was recently caught in a similar manner, but this time not in front of witnesses (who were actually there but couldn’t see a thing in the complete darkness), but caught out by an infrared camera secretly filming the proceedings.

There are copies of the video recordings here. We will have to wait and see if Mannion can pull the same trick as Fry and rely on the gullibility of his fans to get him out of what is either a minor predicament, or more likely a career-ender. But one thing is sure: someone went to the trouble of setting up a camera in secret, and subsequently released the footage.

Another note I will add here is that all alleged séances could be recorded in infrared. When psychic phenomena occur and are recorded, and then published, then that will put a permanent stop to all sceptical criticism. So I urge all spiritualists to do that.

Then again, I think there is a better chance of finding a listed number for a gay bar in the Tehran telephone directory.

I’m just waiting to see how this latest example of psychic fraud pans out.

 

Free Speech And Speaking Your Mind

I’ve been tied up with a lot of things recently – work and home commitments, and other things that have taken up a lot of my time. I must try to get back into some kind of regular blogging, but before I do, I thought I would have a look at one of the recurring themes that have cropped up here and elsewhere – the principle of free speech. What is it, and when can it be justifiably said that one’s free speech is being suppressed?

The idea of free speech seems straightforward enough: someone wants to speak out about any subject at all, and that person just says it. Simple, yes?

Actually, whether someone has free speech depends, ultimately, on the law in any particular country. In western democracies, we tend to take it as a right – even what can be called a basic human right. We can promote ideas of our own, or criticise the ideas of others. We can criticise political leaders and their policies; we are under no obligation to join a particular religion, and we can criticise those religions; we can support any way-out idea, or criticise, parody or ridicule it without mercy; in fact, we can speak out about anything with only a fairly basic and reasonable condition, namely that what we speak out about does not cause, or incite others to cause, harm to anyone else.

Independent Thought Alarm - The SimpsonsCompare that with the situation in other countries. There are at least thirteen countries where atheism, for instance is a capital offence. No religious freedom there, then, and you might not be surprised that those countries are all Islamic states. And similarly, criticism of the governments there (and elsewhere) can bring down the wrath of the state, together with the institutionalised brutality that goes with it. It can’t be a happy life for anyone in any of those places who would like to create change by being able to openly question the status quo.

It’s a huge and complex issue, and occupies a whole area of philosophical investigation, with endless books written on the subject, and it also extends into everyday discussion as well as politics in general. It can be argued that even in our modern day and age our free speech is actually under gradual attack from our own governments. I’m thinking here of recent UK legislation that bans any organisation that receives state funding from having any representative speaking to or lobbying any government department about the subject they deal with. Paradoxically, it means, for example, that government funding given to climate research excludes climate scientists from trying to persuade the government to implement policies that are urgently needed to save the planet we live on. That law is pragmatic from the perspective of big polluters businesses who have caused the problem in the first place, and the governments they have paid to install for their own benefit. I find it all a bit annoying, to be honest. More alarmingly, a journalist is being prosecuted right now by the German government for criticising another country’s leader, President Erdogan of Turkey. That is very frightening for all of us.

Anyway, on a more local level, I have in mind not global or even national issues about free speech and what it is, but what people in general think about it, and what they want to do about it. In particular, I’m thinking about what is going on with the promoters of various woo ideas, especially those who promote those ideas whilst trying to stifle any criticism.

I am heartily sick of the woomeisters, quacks and assorted paranormal promoters who take exception to any criticism of their claims; when they are criticised, their first accusation is almost always that criticism of their nonsense equates to censorship, or that if they don’t have their ill-informed comments published on someone else’s blog or website then that is the same as having their right to free speech suppressed. To which I say, cobblers.

The Bad Thinking blog came into being for one simple reason: I found my own right to free speech being censored and suppressed – not by the state, but by a self-professed expert in all matters paranormal that I criticised. My own feeling is that a claim made by such a person should be able to stand on its own merits. If it is correct, then it should be able to withstand any criticism, in pretty much the same way that an actual scientific hypothesis should be able to survive in the face of intense scrutiny by scientific peer review. And let’s face it – in science, a hypothesis that is criticised has to survive that criticism from other scientists. Its validity is decided on the basis of whether it gets past all the tests thrown at it.

The same person I mentioned above has never proven any paranormal or supernatural claim he has ever made, but he has certainly removed criticism of his claims from the internet with threats of legal action against his critics (and bragged about it, too – perhaps as a subtle warning to others to keep their thoughts to themselves). That’s not the same as the state itself stopping free speech, but it is an example of an individual trying to use the civil laws of the state to stop someone else’s right to speak freely. Significantly, of course, the same person has only gone as far as threatening the use of the law rather than successfully suing anyone. Because of the potential costs involved, the threat of legal action is usually enough to shut someone up. The point, of course, is that using legal thuggery to close down criticism is a tacit admission that paranormal and supernatural claims cannot stand on their own merits. That is what censorship is, not the mere criticism of bad ideas.

If fact, we are fortunate in the UK (as in many other western democracies so far) to be able to speak out about all kinds of things. But the fact that people have that right does not mean that people have the right to impose their personal beliefs on others. What I mean is that religious people, for example, have the right to teach their beliefs in their churches, but I don’t have the right to insist that I should be able to intrude on a church service and start to give a lecture about science, and I wouldn’t want to do that anyway. I don’t see that as a restriction on my right to free speech.

In a similar way, religious people do not have the right to insist that science classes should include non-scientific concepts like creationism. That’s an old, worn-out idea about “teaching the controversy.” Except that there is no controversy at all – science agrees that the universe is about 13.82 billion years old, and evolution is a fact. Religion has no right to intrude into science classes any more than science has to intrude into church services. Unless maybe the creationists would like to invite science to teach in their churches, like they themselves want to proselytise in schools, colleges and universities.

No, not really; the last thing creationists want is to allow any kind of dissent with respect to their own faith. And they think that not allowing religion into science classes is somehow a violation of their right to free speech?

On the Bad Thinking blog, I don’t have a problem. I say what I think, and if anyone wants to reply, then I will publish their comments in full; I will, however, reply to those comments. The only comments I am probably not going to publish are those that are clearly libellous towards any third party, or those that are, in my opinion, likely to incite hatred or violence, and comments that are completely off-topic. Then again, I might publish some outrageous comments if they just demonstrate the ignorance and stupidity of the commenter. I have done that several times.

If someone wants to criticise anything I write on this blog, I am not going to accuse them of trying to suppress my freedom of speech. They can’t stop me from speaking out, after all. The fact that my comments elsewhere were deleted was an annoyance, and the fact that my comments on another blog were removed under the bogus threat of legal action against another person was doubly annoying; that did not, however, stop me from saying what I wanted to say. I simply started my own blog. Anyone can do it.

If someone writes a stupid article about alleged aliens, other paranormal claims or wants to assert that exorcism is a viable treatment for what is actually a mental illness, then I will criticise it. If I am denied the right to comment on their website, blog, newspaper site or whatever, then I will use my own blog to do that criticism. The fact that I am not allowed to comment on that website or blog does not mean that my right to freedom of expression is being suppressed, even if someone is trying to shut me up because he or she can’t take legitimate criticism. What constitutes suppression of free speech is a law that prevents it, or when someone uses the threat of a civil legal action to stop me or others from speaking out.

Personally, I can’t imagine myself instituting legal action against someone who has defeated me in a logical argument – you know, the type of argument where your premise has to be supported with testable evidence and the conclusion has to follow from the premises. Aliens are here? If you want to tell me that, then you have to supply the evidence for your assertion; it’s not good enough to say you have the evidence but just aren’t going to supply it. Let’s face it, in a court of law you can’t convict anyone of a crime by saying you have the evidence but it doesn’t get to be examined. The burden of proof is on the person who makes the claim. If you claim aliens are here, but you want to sue me because I want to see the evidence, then go ahead and try it. I will laugh at you. Then try to sue me for laughing at you. And then try to sue me for publicising the fact that you are making claims without credible evidence.

The truth is no libel.

Furthermore, if I criticise your nonsensical claims on someone else’s blog or website, don’t bother to get my comments removed from there under the threat of legal action against someone else; I will criticise what you have to say on this blog. I don’t libel anyone; I just offer honest criticism. If you can’t take that, then don’t waste your time.

Evidence presented for alleged paranormal phenomena always fails the tests of science, and often enough also the test of the basic common sense of an intelligent and rational person. I have the right to point that out.

Even if I am wrong about the paranormal, I think I have the right to question the various claims made. I think I have the right to ask for evidence for the claims that the paranormalists make. I think I have the right to demand that those claims withstand objective scrutiny and analysis. I think I have the right to have those claims substantiated by the people who make those claims.

And I think I have the right to question those claims without being under the threat of legal action for just asking the claimants to prove what they say.

I also don’t want to live in a society where the state could prosecute me or execute me for questioning the status quo. Even worse, somewhere where a mob of ignorant fanatics might hack me to death just for asking for some basic human rights to be extended to minorities that would like to see themselves allowed to follow their own beliefs without fear of irrational and violent retribution.

There is a lot of ignorance in the world, and a lot of ignorant people who seem to be hell bent on keeping it that way. The paradox, of course, is that the more ignorant a person is, the less able he or she is to understand that they don’t know things, and the more confident they are that they are right. And when those people have influence or power, then we are all in trouble. That doesn’t just apply to a political system where vested interests will allow the human race to go extinct through climate change because there are short term profits to be made, but also where religious beliefs are challenged and so the heretics and blasphemers (that’s actually everyone on Earth from every other religion’s point of view) must be suppressed and oppressed, not to mention killed whenever possible. Unfortunately, we have those who would simply like to have science stopped in favour of the irrational.

Sorry, folks, although I can’t personally do anything about the big picture, i.e., politicians misleading and manipulating people for their own personal gain, or the pious murdering innocent people because they believe their particular god wants them to do it, I can, at least, add my own voice to the battle for rational thinking. And I don’t intend to be gagged by those who think they can get their own way through legal threats in lieu of testable hypotheses. We are in what can be called the marketplace of ideas. If you want to say, for instance, that disease is a result of sin, then prove it; that was the medieval answer to why pandemics occurred in the days when no one had any idea about germs, viruses, toxins, etc. In the meantime, I will point out that an antibiotic will cure that disease, but no amount of prayer will do anything at all. And that can be tested and proved, by the way. In those days, there might have been a few lucky people who had a natural immunity to an ailment, so for them prayer “worked.” Hallelujah!

We’ve moved on since then, even if the devout will not accept that fact. It’s incredible that nowadays – in the twenty first century, for crying out loud – there are still people who believe that mental illness is not caused by a malfunction in the brain or just a fault in someone’s personal psychological outlook, but possession by an external supernatural source (a demon or whatever their particular religion deems it to be). A physical brain problem can often be treated with a drug intervention; a psychological problem can often be resolved with a psychological therapy. Sometimes there might be a combined treatment. What doesn’t solve such a problem, though, is prayer, exorcism, or any other form of what is, in fact, nothing more than superstition in the form of wishful thinking.

There is a lot of bad thinking in the world, and it has to be challenged. People have the right to promote their beliefs, but others have the right to challenge them, especially if those beliefs are without substance or are harmful in some way. Free speech is fine – an essential component of a civilised society – but free speech cuts both ways: say what you want, but don’t whine or make threats (legal or otherwise) when someone challenges you.

Free speech is important and has to be defended; I’m not frightened when someone disagrees with me, and I’m not going to use violence or the threat of legal action to stop anyone from telling me they think I’ve got it wrong. I’m not even going to refuse to publish here a logical argument that proves I have made an incorrect statement. I don’t see the need to get upset if I happen to be wrong about something. I don’t mind learning something new: I’m a sceptic, after all, so if I doubt a claim you make, then just offer your supporting evidence. If it holds water, I will probably go along with it. What’s the big deal?

On the Bad Thinking blog, say what you want. You can have your say without being censored just so long as you are not demanding that anyone else has to be censored in your favour.

Edgar Mitchell

Edgar MitchellIt was sad to hear of the death of former US astronaut Edgar Mitchell last week. In the days when the Apollo on-board computers didn’t have the processing power of even a modern pocket calculator, it took more than just nerve and bravery to head out into space with the goal of landing on the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Mitchell was a true pioneer, being only the sixth human being to set foot on our nearest neighbour in space, and I think it is also accurate and true to describe him, along with others, as a hero.

His achievements didn’t end there, however. Mitchell had academic awards including a Doctor of Science degree from MIT (as well as similar honorary awards from other universities); The Presidential Medal of Freedom; other awards from institutions around the world. The recognition he gained for his achievements and the records he broke is truly amazing, and well-deserved.

Mitchell was, of course, human, and therefore like everyone else; he could, and did, let his emotions override his logic. He made no secret of the awe he felt when he faced the vastness of space and perhaps thought deeply about the smallness of his home planet within it. But that might have been a tipping point. He later went on to pursue his beliefs in paranormal matters and especially the idea that aliens are here, their existence being covered up by a government conspiracy.

Unfortunately, Edgar Mitchell became a focal point for various cranks, conspiracy theorists and paranormal believers in general. “Aliens? Of course they’re here. Edgar Mitchell says so.” That’s the fallacy of the appeal to authority, by the way – assuming the truth of a claim based on who makes the claim rather than asking for evidence. Even Mitchell himself did not claim (as far as I can find out) that he had seen aliens or their alleged spacecraft personally, and said that his information was from others. In other words, his own information was second-hand and uncorroborated, but even worse, his followers accepted what he said about the subject only on the basis of who he was rather than any evidence that he could offer.

In a similar way, Mitchell claimed he had been cured of kidney cancer by a “remote healer,” again without corroborating evidence (he did not have a biopsy done). His alleged illness was never formally diagnosed, although he thought he had the symptoms and therefore the disease. His reasoning was wrong, because it takes a properly qualified doctor to make a diagnosis. Someone who develops a persistent cough has one of the symptoms of lung cancer, for example, but if it clears up after taking some vitamins it does not mean that a cancer was there or that the vitamins did anything. But when someone with Mitchell’s status makes a similar claim, a lot of people take notice and believe it. He certainly did.

In the early days of space exploration many astronauts like Edgar Mitchell became household names, although as time goes on and travel into space becomes almost routine, few modern astronauts gain the same kind of fame. Mitchell’s fame at the time was well deserved for his achievements, but it is a pity that his further fame came about because of his off-target beliefs about the paranormal, UFOs and all the rest of it. I suppose he genuinely believed the unsupportable claims he made, but his legacy is not as heroic as it could have been. Rather than helping to create a new generation of scientific and critical thinkers, he gave that away in favour of convincing uncritical thinkers that belief is better than – or even trumps – testable evidence.

Edgar Mitchell is one of the people I wish I could have met in person. I am old enough to remember the very early days of the space race (including the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin), and I remember following, in particular, the race to the Moon. I still remember the ups and downs, and the drama, of Apollo 13 (the actual event, not the film, by the way). Mitchell was part of that whole adventure to free mankind from the confines of this puny little speck of a pale blue dot that exists somewhere within the immensity of the universe – a true pioneer, pathfinder and hero. I just wish he had stayed with reality in his later years.