Tag Archives: Extraordinary claims

Grabbing The Mane Chance

CecilYou must have heard about Cecil the lion – killed by a dentist from Minnesota – news of which made many people down in the mouth. (I’m not biased against dentists, by the way; I look forward to going to see my own dentist, as it happens: for a busy person like me, it seems to be the only chance I get for a sit-down nowadays.)

Anyway, it’s bad enough that anyone thinks a good holiday is not complete without killing one of the most majestic creatures on the planet. But this dentist was not exactly putting himself in any danger by going on an organised hunt, so he isn’t any kind of hero. There is, however, a world-wide outcry about it and I suspect he’s having second thoughts now (hindsight is not as good as foresight, though).

But things get worse: the psychics have started cashing in. Well, one psychic at least, Karen Anderson, “animal communicator”, who would have you believe that she has “connected with Cecil the lion in the afterlife and has his final words for humanity.”

Get a load of this drivel from her Facebook page, where she announces that Cecil told her:

“Let not the actions of these few men defeat us or allow darkness to enter our hearts. If we do then we become one of them. Raise your vibration and allow this energy to move us forward. What happened does not need to be discussed as it is what it is. Take heart my child, I am finer than ever, grander than before as no one can take our purity, our truth or our soul. Ever. I am here. Be strong and speak for all the others who suffer needlessly to satisfy human greed. Bring Light and Love and we will rise above this.”

It must be good luck that Cecil spoke or thought in English rather than any of the indigenous African languages – or just “Lion”. (E.g., “Roar, growl, roar”.)

If you believe that load of old tosh, then you can hire her to contact any pets you might have had in the past, and it will cost you only $149 for thirty minutes on the phone.

But maybe there is some kind of connection between “psychic animal communicators” and lions; psychics and lions are both predators, after all. At least lions prey for survival, whereas psychics prey for monetary profit from gullible believers. No doubt the publicity generated for Anderson with her 1,500 “likes” on FB will boost her income, although I would have felt (slightly) less disdain towards her if she were advertising that she would be donating a substantial percentage of her increased income towards animal conservation in Africa.

No, there isn’t much good coming out of this whole sorry mess, unless the publicity coming from it can raise awareness of the need for conservation – not just of lions in Africa, but the bigger issue of conservation in general, including our own survival as a species in the face of major environmental concerns – pollution, global warming – in fact everything that conservative climate change denialists seem to hold dear.

In summary, a rich dentist thought is would be fun to spend thousands of dollars going on a holiday where he could kill a lion with no physical danger whatsoever to himself; a supposed psychic has jumped on the bandwagon and gained worldwide publicity for her business; a lion is dead. Who wins in a situation like this? The animal is dead, the dentist is being hounded, the psychic is cashing in.

Oh. The psychic wins. That’s who wins. A psychic sits on the sidelines and then just moves in to take advantage of the opportunity that presents itself. Just like your average predator, or, more accurately in this case, your average parasite, as it happens.

To be honest, this story is just one of many that I come across and shake my head at. It might be more significant to me right now just because our pet cat was old and ill, and I am the one who had the job of taking it to the vet this week to have it “put to sleep,” as it is euphemistically called. In reality, I took it to its death; it didn’t know what was about to happen to it, but in law it seems that if I knowingly allowed it to suffer unnecessarily, then I might be open to criminal charges of animal cruelty. Strange, isn’t it, that a rich dentist from Minnesota can pay for the pleasure of killing a cat, but I could face possible prosecution for not arranging to do the same, albeit without any pleasure whatsoever? (Yes, I realise the circumstances are not the same, but I hope you can understand what I am getting at. There is a difference between causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, and ending an animal’s unnecessary suffering.)

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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.

Creationism Is Not Science

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

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

Mike says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mike then comments:

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

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

Using the same oxymoron as above, Mike continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Mike isn’t finished yet:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_20150111_200601

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

http://www.shieldsgazette.com/opinion/columnists/kicking-up-a-stink-over-origins-of-life-1-7178249#comments-area

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

Was Carl Sagan Not Rational?

The problem with the Sagan Standard is the reasoning behind it; that extraordinary evidence should be produced to support extraordinary claims.

With all respect to Carl Sagan, this is not a very rational approach, for the term “extraordinary” is a highly subjective one.

If a person claims to have witnessed something truly extraordinary, should they really be required to produce “extraordinary” evidence before we take their claims seriously? I don’t think so. – Mike Hallowell, author of “WRAITHSCAPE: the UK’s stupidest spookiest newspaper column.”

carl-sagan So that’s Carl Sagan put in his place (Yes, THE Carl Sagan, BA, BSc, MSc, PhD; author of more than 600 scientific papers; author, co-author or editor of more than twenty books including best-sellers The Demon Haunted World, Cosmos (which also became an acclaimed TV documentary series), the novel Contact (made into a film); writer and presenter of the prestigious Royal Institution Christmas Lectures; winner of numerous awards, including the highest award of the National Academy of Sciences – The Public Welfare Medal, the NASA Public Service Medal, and many others; plus there are awards named in his honour: the Carl Sagan Memorial Award, the Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in Public Communication in Planetary Science, and the Carl Sagan Award for Public Understanding of Science; and the list goes on and on.

The above quote, by the way, is from last week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette.

Anyway, do extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence or not? For Mike Hallowell, “extraordinary” is just a subjective term. He poses a scenario where if he were accused of a crime, then a solid alibi that he was elsewhere at the  time can be used to prove his innocence. And he adds that he shouldn’t have to provide extraordinary evidence, but “…just enough to establish that I could not have committed the crime.”

That, actually, is absolutely correct, but he is missing a very important fact: crime is real; some people commit crimes; sometimes people are falsely accused of crimes; sometimes innocent people are convicted of crimes they have not committed. No sane person could deny any of that; crime and everything associated with it are established facts, and there is nothing extraordinary about any of it.

So what is extraordinary? The word can be defined in different ways depending on context, but in the way that Carl Sagan meant it, he was talking about claims that contradict what science knows about the world and the universe. Science is not a closed book, of course, and new things are being found out all the time; but if someone wants to make a claim that contradicts science then they are making an extraordinary claim that really does require extraordinary evidence.

Try Mike Hallowell’s scenario again, but this time imagine that his alibi is that he could not have committed the crime because he had been abducted by aliens and was being anally probed aboard the aliens’ mother ship when the crime was committed.

Now keep in mind the fact that Mike is a proponent of alien visitation, and has even featured people who claim to be abductees in his weekly column. See here, for example, where he actually says, “Whether their captors are alien or not, something truly extraordinary is happening to them.” (Emphasis added) He regularly quotes former astronauts and military personnel who claim to have had contact with aliens and their space ships, and overall he is convinced of the reality of UFOs as extraterrestrial interplanetary vehicles. For him, anecdotal accounts and personal testimony are sufficient.

But whichever way you look at it, claiming abduction by aliens would be the most extraordinary claim anyone could make in their defence against a criminal charge. In the real world, a person’s alibi would have to be tested: in other words, witnesses for an alibi would have to appear in court and confirm that alibi. Better still, maybe CCTV footage could be brought in to show the defendant somewhere else at the time of the crime. And there are other ways that an alibi can be tested. How could the claim of alien abduction be tested?

It seems to me that claiming abduction by aliens is an extraordinary claim that really does need extraordinary evidence. And in Mike’s example, that extraordinary evidence could be provided if the aliens were to park their shuttle craft in the court’s car park and the aliens themselves gave evidence in court (presumably through their universal translator gadget thingy).

In the case of an accusation of criminality, if a person had several witnesses that he was shopping in the local supermarket at the time of a crime, then that is entirely plausible because supermarkets are real. If the witnesses said they saw the defendant being beamed aboard a UFO, that is not plausible because there is no confirmable evidence whatsoever that UFOs, i.e., alien space ships, exist. It would need a lot more evidence than that – indeed, it would need extraordinary evidence.

I think it’s worth looking at the word “extraordinary.” Extraordinary means “outside of the ordinary,” in the same way that extraterrestrial means “outside of the Earth.” In that sense, or context, “extraordinary” is not a subjective term at all. Mike Hallowell’s argument, in his article, is: “What is extraordinary to one person, then, maybe quite mundane to another.” In other words, if you happen to believe in something, then for you it is ordinary, and therefore real. Nothing is extraordinary if you believe in it.

Does that argument work? For some people in certain parts of Africa, for instance, witchcraft is a mundane reality. So mundane and real, for them, that some unfortunate people find themselves being burned alive because of an allegation of sorcery. It’s so ordinary, in fact, that extraordinary evidence to prove such an allegation is simply not necessary. The poor bastards are just thrown on a bonfire to satisfy others’ superstitious beliefs (and sometimes just to settle old scores).

Believing extraordinary claims without extraordinary evidence is dangerous – deadly, even.

Mike Hallowell also trots out the old chestnut about sceptics constantly “raising the bar” in terms of evidence they will accept for various claims. As he puts it: “However, if one makes a claim that the sceptics in their wisdom find absurd, they’ll raise the bar to new and giddy heights so that those making the claims are faced with a monumental task when it comes to satisfying those who choose not to believe.”

But “raising the bar” is how science works. People who make extraordinary claims are not being asked to provide levels of evidence any higher than science demands for itself. How far would a scientist get if he produced a hypothesis that he could not prove? (For the pedantic, I’ll be more specific: a scientist actually tries to prove the null hypothesis.) It might be hard for the believers to accept this simple fact, but scientists are more ruthless with their demands on each other than they are even with the woo brigade (who can’t prove their claims anyway, and no one really expects them to be able to). Science is a process that starts with research that might show promising results, but a successful experiment is not definitive, it is just the start of what can be a long and arduous task. As research progresses, the hurdles that have to be overcome become, as Mike puts it, “monumental.” Scientists have to do it, so too should the paranormal claimants.

Even when a scientific hypothesis reaches the highest pinnacle, that is, it attains the status of a theory, it is not immune from criticism. Even a scientific theory is held provisionally: despite the best evidence, it might turn out to be wrong (or more likely incomplete, in which case it might need to be modified). There are no sacred cows in science, but if an established theory does turn out to be wrong, that would be extraordinary in itself and would require commensurate evidence. If you can prove that E=MC2 is wrong, you are in for a Nobel Prize and worldwide adulation. But you’re not going to get it if you think, like Mike seems to think, that extraordinary evidence is not required to overturn one of the most extraordinary findings that ever came out of scientific research.

If the pro paranormal people continue to think that low level evidence is sufficient to prove high level claims, I don’t think they’ll ever understand why they are not taken seriously by mainstream science. And if they really think that requiring evidence commensurate with a claim is “not a very rational approach,” then that is just extraordinary, as well as being bad thinking.

Carl Sagan