Tag Archives: Pseudoscience

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.

 

Analysing Skeptics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some People Don’t Like Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try this thought experiment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arse elbow illustration 3

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

Haunted Drivel–The Eerie Power Of Video Editing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shame on the the perpetrators of such nonsense.

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).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fact is that

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

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

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

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

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

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

To put it plainly:

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

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

Pegasus 

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

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

Science Doesn’t Know Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Science 1; Quackery 0

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can Skeptics Handle The Truth About The Unexplained?

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

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

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

Some can’t handle the truth about the unexplained

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On what logical basis can we say that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was A Neanderthal Shot Dead By A Time Traveller? No.

This week’s Wraithscape column in the Shields Gazette seems to be a record-breaker for cramming so much nonsense into such a small space.

images (2)The claim made is that in 1922 a Neanderthal skull was found in South Africa, but that it had a bullet hole in the left side of the skull, and that the opposite side of this skull had been “blown away.” As Mike Hallowell puts it:

In short, whatever had hit the Broken Hill Neanderthal on the left side of his head had passed through it with such force that it had caused the right side to explode.

That sounds like the type of wound that would be caused by a high powered rifle. And, of course, some unnamed forensic experts have concluded:

The cranial damage to Rhodesian Man’s skull could not have been caused by anything but a bullet.

The same article also makes a similar claim about an ancient aurochs – an ancestor of modern cattle, but I’ll not bother with that bit of claptrap; the Neanderthal “shooting” is more interesting.

The whole article is full of factual inaccuracies. First of all, the skull referred to was found in 1921, not 1922. It’s a relatively minor point, but still a factual error.

More important, however, is Mike Hallowell’s claim that the skull in question is that of a Neanderthal. He says:

It was, in fact, a Neanderthal skull, and Neanderthal bones did not exactly come ten-a-penny. [Emphasis added.]

In fact, Neanderthals were never in Africa. The skull is now identified as Homo heidelbergensis, with the evidence suggesting that it is an ancestor of both Neanderthals and modern humans. Neanderthals are on a different branch of our evolutionary tree and their remains have only ever been found in Europe. Not Africa.

But what about the bullet hole and the large exit wound? The “bullet hole” shows signs of healing, and was most likely caused by an infection in the overlying tissue; it certainly did not kill this individual. As for the other side of the skull that supposedly exploded as a bullet passed through, that is simply wrong. The opposite side of the skull is intact. There’s an interesting article about this particular skull at the Bad Archaeology blog.

Mike Hallowell thinks he has “forceful evidence” that thousands of years ago a Neanderthal was shot with a modern firearm, when in fact there is no evidence of the sort. And there is even less evidence for his other conjecture – that…

…someone from the future, carrying a firearm, travelled back into the past and engaged in some sort of trans-temporal hunting expedition.

Then Mike finishes his article with this declaration:

Like it or not, the fact is that someone or something seemed to be using high-velocity bullets thousands of years ago. We don’t know who, we don’t know why and we don’t know how – but it happened.  [Emphasis added.]

I have to say, I don’t mind a mystery, but a genuine mystery has to have a factual basis to make it worthy of examination. The only mystery here is how this drivel got into print.

For a brief, but scientific, account of the skull, there is a good article here at the Natural History Museum. For some reason, the scientists there just don’t seem to have recognised the “bullet hole,” the (non-existent) “exploded” exit wound, or any evidence of time-travelling hunting parties. What are they doing all day long? Don’t they read the Shields Gazette?