Some Thoughts on Skepticism

The various skeptic organizations around the world devote their energies to promoting reason and critical thinking. Sometimes an organization will apply the ideas they promote to try to understand reports of mysterious phenomena, particularly in situations where "mystical," "supernatural" or "psychic" explanations are offered and popularized in public venues uncritically.

One marker that might cause a topic to receive attention by some skeptics would be the presence of large profits by the "mystics" or "psychics" particularly when these profits are extracted from the sick or aged or otherwise vulnerable.

Another might be media reports in which public officials are claimed to be making public decisions based on advice from "paranormal practitioners." The public does need to know if this is responsible behavior or not.

Organization members include scientists, professional magicians and numerous other folks who are horrified or annoyed at the unexamined assumptions on these matters and the general credulity of print and TV and radio editors and the general public, and who are resolved to try to help.

Typically, skeptics try to help by spreading information:

  • To promote reason and critical thinking ("educating") and/or

  • To offer superior alternatives to some specific mysterious claims ("debunking")

    It seems there is plenty of work to go around.

    The mix of folks involved is very important. Scientists, for example, might be at a disadvantage in some ways. They are accustomed to experiments and feel at ease in that environment. They might tend to be very self confident and quite unwilling to believe they can be easily fooled. They are accustomed to being a member of a team in which everyone is working with all their ingenuity and creativity and intelligence to eliminate "noise" and pull a clear "signal" from nature. Most of the people involved in an experiment, of course, have an opinion about what they think they will find or would like to find. But everyone works as hard as possible to design an experiment that is absolutely beyond criticism - they know that if they forget to "cross a single t or dot a single i" someone else will call the results of all their hard work into doubt. The experimental conclusions might be found to be worthless and they themselves and the team will be damaged professionally. They are trained by the nature of their profession to spot flaws in technique or test conditions and to be ruthless in rooting them out. Nature itself, though it might be hard to "read" and wondrously subtle, is not malicious. They are emphatically not accustomed to having people involved with the team deliberately trying to obfuscate, lie or bury a signal in noise. Possibly for these reasons, the evidence shows that they can be rather easy to trick.

    Skeptics do not reject "mystical" explanations out of hand. Instead they apply reasonable standards of common sense and basic principles of evidence to the situations to try to decide if a phenomenon warrants further study or is likely to be the result of chance or fraud or mistakes or wishful thinking.

    Skeptics do not require for purposes of tests that the "mystics" explain what they do and why it works in terms of scientific principles. For example, homeopathic medicine is claimed to be more effective the more it is diluted. A medicine to ameliorate the effects of bee sting might be dilute bee venom. However the most effective medicines (according to homeopathists) are diluted to the point that it is virtually certain that not one molecule of bee venom remains in the medicine. There is no question that scientific principles are totally lacking here.

    However that does not refute the claim of efficacy. The refutation would come in the form of carefully controlled double blind experiments in which placebo and medicine are tested. To date as far as I know this evidence is not too clear. Some results show that homeopathic medicines are not distinguishable from placebos in such tests. Other tests show a statistically significant but small beneficial effect. Careful controlled studies seem not to have been done on the scale used to judge mainstream drugs. Until they have been, homeopathic medicines are fraudulently marketed to the extent that they claim to cure.

    But where is the harm? Why should anyone care if someone buys distilled water and feels they are helping themselves?

    Well, those people are often on fixed or limited incomes. These medicines are often very expensive. These people are often aged or confused and scared about the alternatives - such as real medical procedures. By choosing homeopathy they may be choosing death or impoverishment. A decent society defends its vulnerable members from predation. Those who get rich through trickery and lies should be criticized at least. But those who get rich by fleecing people who are confused or desperate and in pain are to my way of thinking beneath contempt.

    Some examples of (interlinked) principles used by skeptics to try to understand evidence for or against paranormal or other very surprising claims:

    Extreme Claims Require Very Strong Evidence.
    If we are in a windowless room in winter in Seattle and you tell me it is raining outside I am likely to accept your word on this. You have nothing obvious to gain by lying and the idea is hardly surprising. But if you tell me it is literally raining cats and dogs outside I will have to insist on VERY STRONG evidence indeed before I accept this shocking event. It is very important for skeptics to insist on experimental structures that will satisfy paranormal claimants but also provide VERY STRONG evidence one way or another for the claims. People honestly interested in the truth would always prefer strong rather than weak evidence if they could get it. However weak evidence can be very useful to "paranormal practitioners" who know how to use it in publicizing their "powers." Suppose an astrologer can get many different groups to run studies of some kind to determine if he or she can associate sun sign with personality type. Suppose each seperate group and the astrologer agrees that the conditions are a true test of the hypothesis "the astrologer can do this" and no fraud is present. Suppose the nature of the test samples in each study returns a result significant at the "95%" level. What that means is that if you ran the experiment many times, random fluctuations would kick in and 5% of the time a hypothesis would be erroneously accepted or rejected, but that 95% of the time the test would support the actual underlying state of affairs. This significance level is determined by sample size and details of the probabilities involved as well as assumptions about the experimental scenario. There are standard statistical methods that one uses here. The point is that even if these tests in aggregate provide overwhelming evidence to reject the experimental hypothesis it would by no means be unusual - it would even be expected - for one test out of twenty to support that hypothesis. Now, you might wonder why numerous different experiments would be done like this. But in fact, that is what is being done in a more or less crude way each time an astrologer goes on TV and makes predictions, each time they offer services to a police unit, each time they give an interview to a credulous newspaper reporter and each time they participate in an actual experiment. Even if there is no fraud or trickery they will get it right sometimes. The "hits" are published or on videotape and will be used over and over by those who stand to profit by it. The police unit or TV or print reporters will aver that no fraud was present. The "misses" are available too, but totally ignored. If reminded of one or two, the astrologer might respond "Oh that TV show ... well you know there was a powerful negative personality in that audience ... the conditions were not propitious that day ..." To avoid being used like this, all the careful researcher need do is design the experiment better so that the data would support an erroneous acceptance or rejection of the hypothesis much less often.

    A Mountain of Bad Evidence Does Not Equal One Piece of Good Evidence
    Imagine a phenomenon that happens to a rare fraction of the population, such as people who had a dream about the injury or death of an uncle shortly before an uncle died. People dream about all kinds of things, and in a population of millions uncle dreams and subsequent uncle deaths are certain to happen at least hundreds if not thousands of times. Suppose you hunt for such folks or allow them to self-select by advertising or some other way till you get one hundred volunteers. Then you parade them one after another - all one hundred - in front of a room full of people to tell their story. Many of those listeners will walk out totally convinced of the existence of uncle related precognition. The volunteers themselves will likely be totally convinced and therefore convincing. And yet this "evidence" is COMPLETELY worthless as a test of precognition. Even if precognition existed, this test would not be evidence of it. The conviction of the people involved means nothing. People can be taught how to correctly handle and interpret data - but it requires care and thought.

    Control Test Conditions Carefully So That Fraud Is Simply Not Possible
    The cleverness and persuasiveness of charlatans is not in dispute, as evidenced by the ease with which scientists and others can be duped by simple magic tricks. It is not necessary to prove fraud in each of numerous situations controlled by the "paranormal practitioner." One constructs experiments that satisfy several (overlapping) criteria: 1) Results of the test would provide STRONG statistical evidence either for or against the issue under study. 2) Fraud is simply not possible under the conditions of the experiment and 3) The "paranormal practitioner" agrees that the test conditions should unequivocally produce the claimed effect. This works well when the "paranormal practitioner" actually believes an effect is present. Dowsers and astrologers for example often seem convinced that they can actually find water or predict the future or personality type at statistically significant levels. With others, such as "mind readers" or "spoon benders" (telekinesis practitioners) or "psychic surgeons," attempts to tighten up on 1) or 2) often lose agreement on 3).


    On a different note, many skeptics (such as myself) are also educators in some capacity. I have often wondered why many otherwise rather normal people are so easily led into ludicrous and often life-threatening convictions, such as adherence to a nutty saucer-following charismatic-leader type suicide cult to mention one recently publicized example.

    It seems many people feel powerless and that something is wrong and missing in their lives. I guess some people turn to cult beliefs to replace the "Easter Bunny" and "Santa Claus" sense of wonder and turn management of their belief system over to the charismatic leader to provide the "organizing principles" they miss.

    I can't help but feel sad that they need to give themselves up to these foolish things when there are wonderful things aplenty right outside the window.

    Knowledge of the incredible physical world in which we live and the herculean and pioneering efforts of those who work in the sciences provide some sources. There is no need to retreat to "Area 51" mythology or Astrology or Mind Reading to achieve a sense of awe or excitement or flat-out jaw-dropping astonishment. Nothing I have ever heard from paranormal practitioners can outdo on that score the theories of the "Big Bang" and Black Hole Dynamics or the "Standard Model" of particle interaction or the churning cauldron of the Plate-Tectonic Earth or the Biochemistry of Life.

    These and many other scientific theories, created by people using all their sweat and genius and inspiration and discipline, organize the patiently gathered evidence of careful experiments and observations. They try to offer simplifying explanatory power over this collection of data using certain principles. As an example of such a principle, a scientific theory is not only a means of organizing data - it must make measurable predictions about untried but possible experiments. Theories are not cheaply earned, but are the fruit of lives spent dedicated to the quest for this kind of knowledge. Most importantly, the theories cannot be static. Inspiration cannot be produced on demand and the database of evidence - against which all scientific theories are continuously measured - is always growing.

    This wondrous enterprise, whose invention and success is perhaps the only cultural attribute that distinguishes the age of OUR lives from that of ANY of our ancestors, deserves to be known and honored. Perhaps with such knowledge more widely distributed, people would not need a "Psychic Fair," "Pyramid Power" or "Magic Crystals." Science empowers us to understand for ourselves. To look out the window and see a snowflake or a drop of water or a star and understand why they are - why they MUST be - as they are. That is the gift it gives us. We feel simultaneously humbled at the magnitude of what has been created and handed down to us and thrilled at the power it puts in our hands. Let us enjoy it and use it wisely - with awe and humility.


    For links that might be of skeptical interest, check out the following:



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    This page was last modified on 07/18/14 at 20:46.
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