Tag Archives: Superstition

New Year, Old Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And don’t get me started about conspiracy theories:

 

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Chemtrails?

“Chemtrails for Jesus,” perhaps.

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

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

 

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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.

In Support Of Santa

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh. Er…

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

DearChildren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bad Thinking Blog Says: Long live Santa.

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

They Called Me A Pseudoskeptic!

No, I don’t believe there is anything paranormal going on. I’m sceptical of extraordinary claims that the psi folk make but which they cannot confirm. It would be different, perhaps, if psychics really did solve crimes, or predict lottery numbers, or if minefields were being routinely cleared by dowsers, or if anything – anything paranormal at all – could be proven clearly and unambiguously.

It seems, however, that anyone like me who doubts the existence of any of the myriad claims made about the paranormal is not merely a sceptic, but a pseudosceptic. Gosh! I need testable, confirmable evidence before I will believe that a claim that contradicts the known physical laws might be true! I just don’t have faith, and that won’t do.

I’ve been called a pseudoskeptic often by the believers, who seem to think that a “true sceptic” is someone who goes through the motions of examining the evidence offered by the psi proponents, and thereafter accepts it uncritically. In fact, it is claimed that the reason people like me do not accept the paranormal is because I just haven’t examined the evidence. But the opposite is true: I spend as much – or more – time looking at paranormal claims and the supposed evidence supporting it as I do reading about actual science. And I find the evidence in favour of the paranormal woefully inadequate. But I do have a knowledge of science and its methodology, although I make no claims to be a practising scientist.

The believers put great emphasis on the research offered by parapsychologists – often people who do actually have scientific credentials. It sounds good to say that scientists have proven the existence of psi; they have Ph.D. qualifications (usually), so what more do I want? Am I just rejecting science that does not conform to my personal prejudices – as the believers claim?

Actually no – I am rejecting research that no mainstream scientist can replicate. That’s a key point, because nothing is accepted in science unless it can be replicated, and even then it can take a long time to overcome the scepticism of other scientists. Plenty of parapsychologists have claimed to have found proof of psi, but if it only happens in their own laboratories, and no-one else can reproduce the same results and there turns out to be absolutely no practical benefits from it, then why believe? If the psi believers and researchers cannot provide evidence that stands up to independent scrutiny then it is reasonable to doubt the claim – to be sceptical, even. After more than a hundred and fifty years of scientists dabbling in paranormal research there is not one single practical application that has come out of any of it. Of course I’m sceptical – any rational person should be.

In the real world, paranormal claims fall flat. Psychics simply do not do the things they – and others – claim for them.

Consider this scenario:

You meet someone who claims to be a concert pianist. He is with a group of his friends who all confirm his story and even offer anecdotes about the concerts he has performed in the past. They tell you that he has been tested by qualified music examiners and passed every test and exam they have put to him. They regale you with accounts of this pianist performing musical feats that seem impossible to you, a non-musician. You protest that there is no evidence that this person has any musical ability, so why should you accept such a claim?

The matter can be resolved, however: there is a piano in the room, so you invite this pianist to play something. You propose that even though you are not a musician, you will accept the claim that this person is at least a pianist if he can play a recognised piece of classical piano music. You will even leave the choice of music to him, just so long as it is a known classical piece. You are not going to accept “Chopsticks” – you want some kind of Waltzy Sonata or something; nothing less will do.

If this person sits down and plays, say, Mozart’s Alla Turka, note-perfect, I think I would be be convinced. And so should any other reasonable person.

But what if your request for the alleged pianist to perform as he claims he can is met with the reply, “It doesn’t work like that”? That’s the standard reply from psychics and their supporters, after all.

And what if you are told that because you are sceptical of his abilities, his musical abilities will not manifest themselves – that’s the way it is in the presence of sceptics and unbelievers?

Suppose he said that he will not do it because the piano that is there is an upright, and the performance of music on anything less than a Steinberg  grand piano is “not conducive” to musical performance?

What if he said to you, “The production of music is a rare and elusive phenomenon that cannot be called up at will”?

Maybe he might say, “Musical phenomena are spontaneous and cannot be predicted, so I can’t be expected to perform on demand.”

OK, then, suppose he finally agrees to do the test and sits down at the piano, only to produce nothing more than a jumble of notes with no melody whatsoever. He might acknowledge that he got it wrong then, but he assures you that he gets it right about eighty or ninety percent of the time, i.e., every time you are unable to see or hear him perform.

By now I think I would conclude that this fellow can’t play a piano. I might even tell him to his face that I don’t believe he has any musical ability.

But then his followers would probably call “foul.” They just know that he can do what he claims, because they have heard him with their own ears, not realising that they are themselves tone deaf and have no knowledge of music theory.

In a similar way, psychics and their supporters are like that. They have lots of faith, but no knowledge of how science works, or even what constitutes valid evidence (and no, anecdotes are not evidence).

If you have watched some of the X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent auditions by people who are truly awful singers but who – together with their supporters – believe they are great performers, you might start to understand my analogy. The show’s judges – who do know something about music – can usually be relied on to weed out the hopefuls who cannot do what they think they can.

The reality is not that I have not studied what the paranormalists believe is evidence for the paranormal; in fact,  they themselves have little or no understanding of science. Even many of the parapsychologists who do have scientific credentials are themselves practising pseudoscience. In fact the believers often dismiss empirical findings with the casual refrain, “Science doesn’t know everything.” Some self-styled “experts” also claim to have evidence but they just won’t let you examine it. And science itself is usually referred to by the derogatory term “scientism.”  Oooooh!

If there is such a person as a pseudosceptic, then its definition boils down to this: a pseudosceptic is another name for a denialist. A denialist, like a believer, has a fixed point of view that is impervious to reason. I can be convinced of the existence of the paranormal if anyone can ever prove it. A belief backed up only by excuses for constant failure will not do it for me; nor will anecdotes, personal testimony, heartfelt declarations and so on.

Show me a psychic that can actually do anything psychic and I will accept it. But make a claim for the existence of psi without backing it up with testable evidence and I will doubt it. That’s what scepticism is about.

For your entertainment:

Here is someone who claims to be a pianist, and actually proves it. This is brilliant.

Someone who does what he claims.

 

Here are some people who genuinely believe they have talent, but are making complete fools of themselves. Tragic and sad.

Ambition goes beyond ability

 

Here are some psychics who do what psychics do, (fail when tested) but just happen to be exposed as charlatans. (And they didn’t see it coming, for some inexplicable reason.)

Psychics: the reality

 

Naturally, it might just be that the three mediums featured above were just having an off day. I mean, psi doesn’t work like that, does it? It’s a rare and elusive phenomenon that can’t be called up at will. They are also in the presence of a sceptic and the conditions are therefore not conducive to psychic effects Etc., etc., etc.

No doubt there will be believers who will make excuses – as they always do – for these psychics and other psychics who can’t do anything psychic. But the main point still remains: paranormal proponents have yet to prove beyond any doubt that the paranormal is real. They have not done that, nor have they produced a testable hypothesis that would make any headway into psi, and they certainly do not have anything approaching what could be described as a theory (in the scientific sense) that can explain psi or be predictive in any way that science would accept.

No one can prove a negative, so no one can actually disprove the existence of the paranormal. The burden of proof is on those who claim that the paranormal is real; until they do so, I remain sceptical.

There is nothing pseudo about reasonable doubt.

Wrapping Up 2013 And Looking Forward To 2014

Well, it’s the end of another year and the beginning of the next, so I thought I’d do a roundup of the successes of psychics and other proponents of the paranormal, and the breakthroughs made by parapsychlogists. The list of notable positive achievements by the exponents of psi, UFOs, remote viewing, astrology, spiritualism, remote viewing, spoon bending, psychokinesis, exorcism, telepathy, ghost hunting, poltergeists, etc., is as follows (in no particular order):

1) Erm…

2) Yeah, right.

3) Umm…

4) That’s about it, actually.

seance

And the list of achievements for the practitioners of the various and assorted forms of medical quackery out there is:

1) Oh, give me a break…

2) What about a list of dangerous quacks who should be jailed…?

3) Really – don’t get me started.

vacuum_cap_thumb

Actually, when I thought of doing a year-end round up, I thought of doing a comprehensive list of links to the failures of various psychics, deaths by exorcisms, people being duped out of their life savings by “money cleansers,” false or wrong predictions by clairvoyants, the failure of any pseudoscientific paranormal research to be published in any accredited scientific journals, the astoundingly stupid publications of self-professed but qualification-free “experts” in the paranormal, stage and TV psychics who aren’t really psychic otherwise they wouldn’t advertise their shows as being “for entertainment only” if they really were psychic (and if they were they would be able to prove it), dead people who eschewed medical science in favour of any form of quackery you can think of, and the list goes on and on and on. But a list of links like that could go on indefinitely, and I would guess that no one would have the inclination – or the stamina – to go through it all.

The bottom line is straightforward: there is still no confirmable evidence that the paranormal is real or that anyone is being cured of anything by supposed complementary and alternative medicine. The believers go on deluding themselves, and the promoters of woo are never short of eager suckers willing to part with their cash and even put their lives in danger to pursue a chimera.

I think the only uncontroversial thing to be stated is that the controversy will go on.

But what will 2014 bring? Like everyone else, I’m not psychic, so I will have to rely on my sceptical powers (which I have vowed to use only for good) to make some predictions:

  • Millions of people around the word will waste billions of pounds making thousands of psychics a little bit richer.
  • Millions of people will waste their money on unnecessary health supplements, unnecessary and often dangerous colonic irrigations, various quack remedies that are useful only to hypochondriacs; quacks will get a little bit richer and some of their patients will die because they should have seen a doctor before they went for “healing” rather than evidence-based treatment.
  • Exorcisms will continue to cause injuries and claim lives around the world because pre-Enlightenment religious superstition still pervades the lives of billions of people, reinforced by a lifetime’s indoctrination, and of course it will be promoted by people who can make money peddling it in their writings.
  • No one will be abducted by aliens from outer space or be anally probed by them, but the reports will continue to come in. Writers of this kind of nonsense will continue to believe that anecdotes trump testable evidence, and will wonder why they are being criticised for it.
  • Books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people with Ph.Ds who have moved away from science into pseudoscience; and books and articles promoting the paranormal will be written by people who have neither accredited qualifications  nor any knowledge of science but claim themselves to be “experts,” while the rest of us are not. In both cases, the existence of the alleged paranormal will not be proven to the exacting standards required by science.
  • Anything you can think of relating to any branch of woo will, in short, carry on pretty much as usual, and not a single thing within the paranormal or supernatural arena will gain support from science or become in any way a regular part of  life in the same way as we accept electricity, smartphones, (real) medicine and so on.
  • There will be no Nobel Prizes awarded to any promoter of woo who claims that the paranormal is explainable in terms of quantum physics – and let’s be honest, quantum physicists tend to think the idea of the paranormal is a load of old tosh anyway, without self-promotional oafs bastardising a scientific concept that real scientists have spent decades investigating – without discovering any links between unproven psi claims and hard science.

It looks like the battle for rationality will have to continue in the face of relentless pressure from those who believe in, but cannot prove, the paranormal claims they make.

It still all comes down to a simple concept: the burden of proof is on the person who makes a claim. It’s not up to me or any other sceptic to disprove anything that a psychic or woo promoter says, it is up to them to demonstrate clearly and unequivocally that what they claim is true. They’re going to be challenged. Someone asked me once, “Are you still trying to prove that psychics aren’t real?” My answer now is the same as it was then: “No, I don’t try to prove that psychics aren’t real; I try to get them to prove that they are real.”

And the same applies to those who claim that UFOs are alien spaceships from another galaxy (ASFAGs), but who can do no better than rely on unconfirmed anecdotes from alleged witnesses. Produce a piece of alien hardware or something; that might do it.

The fact is that there are many people out there who are determined to undo the Enlightenment. The tragedy is that so many of them truly believe they have “knowledge” that is unavailable to the rest of us and that methodological research, i.e., science, should be way down the list of priorities when it comes to finding out what is going on in the real world.

The biggest problem being faced by rational people – and the very foundation of science – is not so much the ignorance of those who promote woo in all its forms, but their illusion of knowledge. The fight has to go on.

So, although I’m not usually one to make New Year resolutions, I think I’ll try to make an effort to post more often than I have done recently. There’s no shortage of nonsense out there to blog about, after all.

You’re Not Mad–They Are

thCA150FN4I was hoping that possession and exorcism would be a subject that I would not be returning to for a while, but I find that things are worse than I thought. It’s one thing for well-meaning but ignorant religious zealots to propound their personal superstitions, but it turns out that there are religious zealots in the UK who are actually in a position of real authority and who are ready and willing to impose their beliefs on certain vulnerable people.

There is a serious warning in this excellent blog post at Leaving Fundamentalism. Believe it or not, there is an organisation of medically qualified people that includes doctors who believe that mental illness can be, and often is, according to them, possession by demons!

Medical science is based on empirical research – testable, repeatable research that is not allowed into medical practice until its safety and effectiveness has passed the most rigorous tests. A candidate who wants to become a doctor has to undergo strict training over many years, and when he or she passes their final exams even that is not the end of it; there is still ongoing supervision and training and a requirement to keep up to date with the latest medical science.

For some medics , however, it seems that the science they learned can now be ditched in favour of their (Christian) religion. For a possible mental illness, forget the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), go to the Bible instead:

“However, we also need to recognise that not all human problems will be explicable by medical science. The New Testament tells us that Jesus has commissioned us to ‘ drive out demons’ (Mk 16:17), and we must be ready to respond to this commission if and when we are called to do so.”

And this:

“It would seem, therefore, that the exercise of a spiritual gift (1 Cor 12: 10) would be likely to be more useful than the application of medical knowledge when a person is demon possessed, although a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.”

I wonder what people would think if their gas engineer disregarded his training and did their annual safety check using prayer and incantations instead of well established methodology? If their house blows up later, would it be sufficient to say that it must have been God’s will? (That’s usually the excuse when exorcists kill their  victims clients, after all.)

That’s pretty much what is going on here with people we are supposed to be able to trust to work within the  scientific parameters they have been taught.

It seems to me that if mental health workers – in particular doctors – come across something that is not (currently) “explicable by medical science” then that should open up a new area of empirical research to get to the bottom of it. Knowledge does not advance by calling on superstitious beliefs; it advances by objective research.

In the second quote above, these people are clearly relegating medical science to a second-class status when they say, “…a knowledge of psychiatric illness is undoubtedly of value in continuing the diagnosis of a psychiatric illness when one is present.” Science is “of value”? Well, thanks for that. But they also think that exorcism – “…the exercise of a spiritual gift…” – is better than medical knowledge when a person is “demon possessed”?

And by what objective criteria do they decide that someone is possessed by demons? They don’t say, and I would bet that none of this crap has been published in any accredited peer reviewed scientific journal.

It just beggars belief.

Religion is a delusion, which by definition is a fixed, false belief held in the face of opposing evidence (even proof). It seems that in this instance, the “qualified” people are the very ones who should be having the psychiatric treatment they would deny to others in favour of exorcism.

There is a big problem when bad thinking takes over. If religious superstition really worked, there would be no need for doctors or hospitals. In cases like this, if your doctor suggests a religious solution for whatever ails you, it’s time to find another doctor. And after you do so, make a formal complaint about your former witch doctor to the British Medical Association. (Assuming you are in the UK, of course; for everyone else, complain to your nearest medical governing body.)