Reply to Skeptics
Reply to James Randi

Unengaged, implausible, illogical

Among many issues that came out of my last entry, I was asked to provide evidence for certain claims I made about skeptics' behaviour. Here they are:

1) refusing to engage with parapsychological investigations on any level as being of no interest, undoubtedly fraudulent, obviously nonsense, etc.

It's surely not uncontroversial to say that this is true of many scientists, as most might proudly agree.  Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins and Lewis Wolpert have all been fairly explicit about their lack of interest - to name only three. If you want a specific example, try Lewis Wolpert's attitude during a public debate with Rupert Sheldrake on telepathy - notably his refusal even to watch a relevant clip that Sheldrake was showing to support his case. 

Another example is the public exchange between Sheldrake and Atkins, in which Atkins candidly admitted he hadn't read any of the evidence of telepathy that he had dismissed as a 'charlatan's fantasy'.

2) engaging with [psychical investigations], but explaining them away with all kinds of implausible scenarios which in any other context no one would entertain for a moment

One could fill a book with examples. One that comes to mind at once is psychologist C.E.M. Hansel's 'explanation' for a successful experiment reported by J.B. Rhine at Duke University in the 1930s. Rhine's colleague Gaither Pratt tested a theology student named Hubert Pearce for ESP in card experiments. In four series involving a total of 74 runs, where 5 was the mean, Pearce scored averages of 9.9, 6.7, 7.3, and 9.3 - the odds of that happening by chance are a hundred thousand billion billion to one. In one of the experiments Pearce was guessing cards at pre-arranged intervals while Pratt was turning over the cards in another part of the building. (Rhine, J B and J G Pratt (1954), ‘A Review of the Pearce-Pratt Distance Series of ESP Tests’, Journal of Parapsychology, 18, 3, pp. 165-77.)

Hansel discovered that the office had a glass window opening onto the corridor, and proposed that, unknown to Pratt, Pearce had simply nipped upstairs and peeked through. When a different office was used, Hansel noted a trapdoor immediately above the table where the experimenter had sat; obviously Pearce had got above the ceiling somehow and looked through it to catch a glimpse of the cards. 

The effectiveness of this explanation is that it provides a theoretical loophole. But it's not remotely plausible in practice. Even if Pratt had been conveniently sitting just in front of the window with his back to it, Pearce would have constantly courted discovery, lurking in the corridor. As for getting into the ceiling and looking through a trap door... (ESP and Parapsychology: A Critical Re-evaluation, (Buffalo: Prometheus, 1980), pp. 111-23.

Another example might be Richard Wiseman's attempt to debunk the Feilding Report, a minutely detailed description of sittings with the séance medium Eusapia Palladino in 1908, which concluded in a firm endorsement of paranormal effects. The sittings were held in a hotel suite, in a room (B) that could only be entered via the corridor and then through another room (A). Wiseman argued that once the sitting had started an accomplice effected entry into room A, removed a false panel from the wall separating it from room B (which had somehow been constructed prior to the sittings), clambered through, where he/she remained hidden from the investigators by the curtain which separated a corner of the room behind Palladino (this was where much of the phenomena originated, eg the appearance of hands and faces, instruments playing themselves, the curtain billowing outwards, etc). The accomplice, Wiseman maintained, faked all these things and then effected his/her escape prior to the end of the session.

Among many objections, critics of Wiseman pointed out that, quite apart from the implausibility of a panel being constructed without anyone knowing, and an accomplice doing tricks a few feet from the investigators without ever being spotted:

  • the curtain often billowed up high, revealing the space behind, which would instantly have given the accomplice away

  • much of the phenomena occurred in front of the curtain not behind it

  • the phenomena continued after the session had finished

  • Palladino achieved precisely the same effects in numerous other investigations where an accomplice could not have gained entrance.

(Richard Wiseman, 'The Feilding Report: A Reconsideration', Journal of  the Society for Psychical Research 58, 1991-92, pp. 129-52.)

I also think of Susan Blackmore's approach in Dying to Live to explaining away veridical out-of-body perception. This category of experience includes accident victims and hospital patients giving accurate descriptions of objects, scenes and events which they witnessed while they were unconscious, and which they could not normally be expected to have knowledge of.

One idea, which Blackmore puts forward, is that hospital patients are not always knocked out by anaesthetics and may have some residual sense of hearing, from which they can piece together what happened. There is some evidence that anaesthetics are not 100% effective in 100% of cases, so it's a point worth making. But she fills it out with the usual Humean claims about witness unreliability, that people get confused, or forget things, or exaggerate. This doesn't begin to account for the detailed visual descriptions recorded, for instance, by cardiologist Michael Sabom in his Recollections of Death (1982), where one patient commented on the surprising shape of his heart, as the surgical team lifted it out and snipped bits off, and another was surprised to see how deep her spine was within her body - other similar accounts describe incidents that occurred in other parts of the hospital out of range of their hearing.

Blackmore's performance here is spirited and confident, and out of context will convince like-minded sceptics who don't know exactly what it is she is trying to explain away. But if you do understand the context it's utterly lame - the desperate gambit of a clever defence lawyer with a patently guilty client and nothing to lose.

It's very hard to understand how a serious minded, objective person could take these sorts of 'explanations' at all seriously. One is left with the feeling that they are permissible because the alternative is just so flat out impossible that virtually any alternative scenario will do, no matter how implausible.

3) carrying out experiments in order to prove that, when properly conducted, the effect will not appear, getting an effect, and then explaining it away on the grounds of 'experimental flaws'

This happens on the rare occasions when skeptics carry out psi experiments. An example is their attempt to debunk Rupert Sheldrake's experiments in the sense of being stared at. In one experiment, Richard Wiseman used randomization tables to ensure that the subjects didn't start noticing patterns that enabled them to get correct guesses. But he still got significant results, and then decided it was because of the randomization.  (R. Wiseman & M. Smith, 'A further look at the detection of unseen gaze' Proceedings of the Parapsychological Association 37th Annual Convention. Parapsychological Association, 1994, pp. 465-78.)

4) carrying out experiments with psychics on television with a very precisely determined pre-agreed protocol, getting highly significant results, and then refusing to accept the results as valid

In 2005 National Geographic made a TV film on remote viewing. The publication has a reputation for skepticism, but Joseph McMoneagle, one of the most successful participants in the US military's Stargate programme, and Edwin May, who ran it, nevertheless both agreed to take part, on condition that the protocols were specified in advance and followed exactly.

The target, a bridge, having been chosen with no means whatever of McMoneagle identifying it from sensory clues or anything else, to the producers' satisfaction, he nevertheless not only proceeded to draw an accurate image of it, but described the route leading to it in surprising detail. The crew and producer expressed astonishment at the exact match, and two policemen who stopped by said McMoneagle's drawing was so detailed that they would have easily recognised the spot from seeing it. 

Interviewed at the end of the programme, the experts who had been invited to comment were unimpressed, a) because McMoneagle hadn't named the bridge, and b) because the match could merely have been a coincidence, achieved by guesswork. Why agree to a protocol, only to dismiss it so casually when it is precisely fulfilled?

Damien Broderick, who describes this curious tale in his book Outside the Gates of Science, comments: 'You get the impression a chimpanzee could have done it by reaching into a hat and pulling out a number. The copious valid and surprising details were ignored. Because it couldn't happen, therefore it hadn't happened.' (p. 113).

Comments

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Well cited, Robert. Your posting could easily have been longer by a factor of ten or greater, but I concur with Michael Prescott that "agreement to disagree" is the best that can be managed in dealing with those who claim the mantle of "skeptic" when they are demonstrably merely "believers" with their own set of unexamined assumptions. To quote the late plasma physicist David Bohm :"Most people think they are thinking when they are really only rearranging their predjudices." There are more profitable ways of spending time than to struggle with a horse who refuses to drink the water.

See also the article on Ian Stevenson at skeptic.com in which it is stated that a case could not be considered genuine merely because social construction (here: in the case of childrens` memories of previous lives) could not explain this outstanding case. Here, an alternative explanation isn`t offered, the conclusion simply is that there is just no way to accept claims on paranormal. Also the article raises the objection that a drunken father could have tutored the child for he thought it was funny. This is the worst argument: When nothing else is left then the people involved are liars. Or the researchers are liars. The debatte between skeptics and psi-suporters is pointless: No one can ever be convinced to view claims of the paranormal unbiasedly who has decided that they might by no means be true!

You've excelled yourself here, Robert. Brilliant. If I were a naysayer, I might even be convinced ;-)

Kevin: that quote is on TDG today attributed to William James. Never mind. Both he and David Bohm are sound!

"Because it couldn't happen, therefore it hadn't happened."

This is the crucial point. It’s the white crow, with major existential implications. *True materialists*, believing that the answers to Life the Universe and Everything will be found in equations, must, as an a priori matter of principle, deny all such evidence. It only takes one single case to disprove the whole foundation of materialism. Therefore, one single case cannot, under any circumstances be admitted. *True scientists*, on the other hand, have no such a priori mental block (eg David Bohm, as cited above).

It is, of course, difficult for scientists to get funding for anything without materialist implications in our materialistic culture.

What is our intellect ?

The physical education.

The more I study the more I know.
The more I know the more ideas I have.
The more ideas I have the more they abstract.
The more they abstract the less I know the truth.
=====.
Some years ago I told with young physicist (!!!).
He said very confidently: ” You cannot be physicist (!)
if you cannot understand the beauty of Minkowski
mathematics.(!!!)
======.
It seems that he is right, because physicists must know
mathematics very well. The problem is that nobody
knows what is real physical meaning of “ 4-D negative
space continuum.” in the Nature. SRT is correct theory
but Minkowski space continuum is abstract. And together
they are paradoxical. More than 100 years we live with
this paradox. Nobody confuses.
==========.
During our conversation I understand that this young physicist
is strong and clever man and he want to reach success. And
I think he will do it. So, in the future he will create new
D/ M-spaces or new symmetries or discover new particles.
And one day he will be a professor and will teach new
generation ( your son or your daughter) in order that they also
have possibility to create new D/ M-spaces or new symmetries
or discover new particles. But if in the beginning the abstract
ideas were put into the fundament of physics then ……..
we can create new and new theories for 1000 years but
the result will be the same - paradoxical.
Our small Orwell’s world.
=============…
What is our intellect ?
1.
We don't know what we are talking about"
/ Nobel laureate David Gross referring to the current state of string theory ./
2.
It is important to realize that in physics today,
we have no knowledge of what energy is.
We do not have a picture that energy comes in little
blobs of a definite amount. ”
(Feynman. 1987)
3.
When asked which interpretation of QM he favored,
Feynman replied: "Shut up and calculate."
4.
when I was first learning quantum mechanics as a graduate student
at Harvard, a mere 30 years after the birth of the subject.
"You'll never get a PhD if you allow yourself to be distracted
by such frivolities," they kept advising me, "so get back to serious
business and produce some results."
"Shut up," in other words, "and calculate."
And so I did, and probably turned out much the better for it.
/ N. David Mermin /
5.
The problem of the exact description of vacuum, in my opinion,
is the basic problem now before physics. Really, if you can’t correctly
describe the vacuum, how it is possible to expect a correct description
of something more complex?
Paul Dirac .
6.
“ Young man, in mathematics you don't understand things,
you just get used to them.”
/ John von Neumann ./
7.
Since the mathematical physicists have taken over,
theoretical physics has gone to pot.
The bizarre concepts generated out of the over use and
misinterpretation of mathematics would be funny if it were not
for the tragedy of the waste in time,
manpower, money, and the resulting misdirection.
/ Richard Feynman./
8.
" I feel that we do not have definite physical concepts at all
if we just apply working mathematical rules;
that's not what the physicist should be satisfied with."
/Dirac /
9.
In his 1997 book ” The End of Certainty” Nobel Laureate
Ilya Prigogine wrote:
"The more we know about our universe, the more difficult
it becomes to believe in determinism."
And “ The quantum paradox is real nightmare for classic mind ”
10.
In his book ” Quantum theory “ ( published in 2002 )
John Polkinghorne wrote:
“Quantum theory is certainly strange and surprising,…”
/ chapter 6, part “ Quantum hype”, page 92 /
11.
Etc……..………………….
#
What is our intellect ?
We can see this practically :
after “ big bang “ all Galaxies run away from us.
#
This is our normal intellect in our normal Orwell’s farm.
======================..
Conclusion from some article:
"One of the best kept secrets of science is that physicists
have lost their grip on reality."
=================..
Best wishes.
Israel Sadovnik. / Socratus.
http://www.socratus.com
http://www.wbabin.net
http://www.wbabin.net/comments/sadovnik.htm
http://www.wbabin.net/physics/sadovnik.pdf

=======================…

I believe some people, no matter how inteligent, can not deal with this, "today's" reality let alone accepting that there is another more bizarre (for some) reality which others may have encountered. It may tear too much at the fabric of their psyche that they might crack.

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