Friday, November 27, 2015

Skeptics Versus Skepticism

I've pointed out a number of times that there's a big difference between being a capital-S Skeptic and being skeptical. Skepticism is what I try to exhibit here on Augoeides, evaluating paranormal claims on the basis of the evidence. I've put up a number of articles along those lines, such as pointing out that the Loch Ness Monster is probably a fish (though sturgeon versus catfish is still a topic for debate) or evaluating ghost photography for signs of possible normal explanations.

Back in the 1930's, Joseph Banks Rhine at Duke University conducted a whole series of experiments designed to test telepathy in human subjects. His work is where we get things like the Zener cards that appeared in movies such as Ghostbusters. Eventually one of the biggest problems with Rhine's protocols was discovered - if you have two people sitting across from each other at a table, with one looking at a card and the other trying to guess it, it is possible for the "receiver" to see the symbol on the card reflected in the eyes of the "sender."

Rhine's research was attacked by the scientific establishment of his day, but I find it rather telling that it wasn't the scientists attacking Rhine who worked out the eye-reflection explanation. That was done by other parapsychologists evaluating and trying to replicate Rhine's work. I remember how bizarre it was reading the critiques of Rhine back in college and seeing that no alternative explanations were proposed for his results at all. Rather, the critiques noted that Rhine had provided enough evidence to demonstrate virtually any other phenomenon, but they simply disliked the concept of psi and that was that.

Reading some of that material is what formed my current opinions of Skeptics and skepticism. A truly skeptical scientist would have looked over Rhine's work carefully for possible normal explanations, and might have even hit on the eye-reflection problem. That they did not showed me that they weren't really looking at the evidence. Many modern Skeptics do that as well. In the face of seemingly paranormal results, they quickly put forth explanations like "fraud," or if that's not possible or reasonable, "mass hysteria," which is an explanation that's about as well-understood as psi phenomena.

That background is one of the reasons I was so impressed with this article by Skeptic Michael Shermer that was published over a year ago, in which he discusses an apparently anomalous experience that he encountered and which he was unable to explain. To those of you not familiar with the Skeptic establishment, it probably seemed like no big deal. But to see one of them publicly admit there are weird things out there that current science can't completely explain was pretty much unprecedented at the time.

So today I came across this article discussing a debate that was held between Rupert Sheldrake, a prominent biologist who is a proponent of psi phenomena, and Skeptic Lewis Wolpert. One of the ways that Sheldrake has tried to avoid fraud charges is by running psi experiments involving animals that lack the self-awareness necessary to carry out deliberate deception. During the debate, he screened a video of a parrot that appeared to exhibit some sort of telepathic ability. Rather than even watch the video, Wolpert deliberately looked away.

Some people would see Wolpert's refusal to watch as stubbornness or closed-mindedness, or as a debating tactic, but I think aversion to cognitive dissonance is likely to be the deeper explanation. It would have been almost physically painful for him to pay attention to a video that so directly challenged his beliefs. Instead he acted like a child who claps his hands over his ears and sings "La la la!" rather than hear upsetting words.

Because any evidence for psi or life after death is so disturbing to him, the Skeptic tends to avoid it whenever possible. But if he cannot avoid it, then he must find a way to neutralize it. The need is urgent, which is why the first available explanation consistent with his preconceptions is eagerly seized upon. This is also why Skeptics are "debunkers" at heart; their impulse is not to engage with the evidence but to dismiss it as quickly as possible.

This accounts for the tendency of Skeptics to come up with a quick-and-dirty explanation of any troubling phenomenon. Because cognitive dissonance is so painful for Skeptics, they often do not even read the cases closely — or if they do read them, they don't absorb or retain what they're reading. It's a defense mechanism. Rather than engage with the material, which would make them deeply uncomfortable, they skim it, find the first detail they can "debunk," and declare the case closed. They can safely forget it. Dissonance has been resolved, and order is restored. (Matt Rouge, a commenter here, calls this "the fallacy of the glancing blow.")

Some people, noting the poverty of many ad hoc Skeptical explanations, decide that Skeptics are unintelligent or consciously dishonest. I don't think this is true. While a few may be dishonest and/or not too bright, I believe most Skeptics are of above-average intelligence and are not intentionally deceitful. Their hastily proffered explanations fail because the Skeptic does not take the time to treat the material seriously. Like Lewis Wolpert, he just wants to avert his eyes from any troubling claims.

To me, such tactics are entirely alien. There's a whole list of flaws that you can look for in an animal telepathy experiment, most notably the "clever Hans effect" in which the animal is picking up on clues in the experimenter's body language as to which he or she considers the "correct" outcome. Precisely because this is so subtle, it requires that any video of such an experiment be studied closely. Refusing to even consider the evidence may be par for the course with Skeptics, but it's not in any way skeptical.

A real critique of the video, which I believe is the one embedded above, would be as follows. From the experimental procedure it looks like they've eliminated "clever Hans" by having the sender in a completely different room. That's good. However, one issue is that the statistical breakdown is probably not quite as anomalous as it seems. Parrots trained to use English have been found to have vocabularies of 350-500 words, not all of which are nouns. If the photographs were selected based on vocabulary words the parrot knew, you're talking about matching 100-200 possible images to 100-200 possible words, as Sheldrake states at the beginning.

So in fact, just looking at the few good examples on the video doesn't tell us very much. Without knowing the number of trials and the overall deviation from chance, it's impossible to say how anomalous these results are. I assume that data is out there somewhere, so the next step would be to evaluate that. Then, you need to make sure that the sample shown doesn't reflect cherry-picking of results or trials that were stopped partway through once the parrots guesses rose above chance. Again, you need to look at the whole data set for that, and verify that, say, when the parrot said nothing it was treated as a miss rather than a neutral result or not counted. And so forth.

But you can't do any of that without really looking at the evidence. Just dismissing these findings because they are weird does not reflect any sort of critical thought process or scientific analysis. In the end, it's really the weird results that push science forward, because anomalous phenomena show us where our models have the potential to break down. As an example, Newtonian physics for the most part explains the world just fine. It's only when you encounter areas of very high gravity and/or speed that Einstein's relativity theory will give you noticeably different results.

I realize that the paranormal has its closed-minded thinkers as well, and it is true that I've seen far too much from my magical work to ever be convinced that I somehow made it all up. That being said, any experimental result that can't stand up to some form of peer review is anomalous and therefore meaningless from the standpoint of helping us understand the universe. Knowing that something can happen isn't terrible useful if it only shows up in say, one or two out of a thousand trials. That's rare enough that it might as well not exist for most practical purposes.

On the other hand, if we're truly being skeptical, we should evaluate the evidence on its own terms. That means poring over experimental procedures looking for errors like the eye-reflection problem and proposing normal explanations that fit the data, because the truth is that paranormal phenomena are paranormal precisely because they are rare and/or unusual. If they were common or easily observed, they would be part of the current scientific models already.

Statistically speaking, normal explanations exist for most experimental observations, even weird ones. But it seems to me that we also miss some promising avenues of inquiry if we shove everything weird under the rug.

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